Ha Jung-woo, left, and Jun Gianna star in the Korean espionage thriller “The Berlin File.”
In “The Berlin File,” a film with a title out of a paperback spy thriller, the South Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan (“The Unjust”) brings his brand of muscular action and quicksilver agility to the shifting battleground of international espionage. A North Korean spy left out in the cold must negotiate threats posed by friend and foe alike, as a bone-crunching story of survival emerges, almost too late, out of the fog of intrigue.
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An arms deal gone sour lifts the lid on a rat’s nest of spies (the Koreas, Mossad, the C.I.A.) conducting the sort of proxy fight more familiar from the cold war. Mr. Ryoo presents agents from either side of the border with whom we might sympathize. Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) is the dedicated North Korean infiltrator whose appearance on the scene causes considerable consternation, as a South Korean intelligence chief, Jin-Soo (Han Suk-kyu), tries to interpret the mess.
Mr. Ryoo risks bogging the film down in the lengthy and confounding ramping up. But as soon as “The Berlin File” takes flight with its exhilarating action set pieces, memories of any muddles evaporate amid the tension and vivid engagement with settings, from courtyards to fields. Special mention goes to Jong-seong’s whip-smart countryman, an investigative agent portrayed with electrifying viciousness by Ryoo Seung-bum (the director’s brother).
“The Berlin File” boasts one immortal line of dialogue expressing the hubris of a warrior in the shadows: “I’ll die when I feel like it.” But Mr. Ryoo (the director) ends his movie in a hardheaded way that shows that freedom from fear is not always an option.