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The return of the action flick

Don't let all these comparisons to the colossal melodrama (even though, yes, the sinking ship was pretty cool) Titanic steer you away from Shiri. It's a huge budget (especially for a Korean film) action movie with violence, explosions, love, and technology that actually has something meaningful to say: Not far beneath its slick surface, Shiri is about the North/South conflict that's been plaguing the divided country for decades. Even the title is symbolic. Shiri is a fish that swims the streams of both North and South Korea, crossing the borders that humans place so much importance on-borders that have ultimately lead to millions of deaths.

If an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie, or Titanic, with its hokey heart necklace, attempt to weave some symbolism into the action genre, it usually comes off as clueless fluff. But here, with Kang Je-Gyu's talents as writer and director, the symbolism works.

The film is about two special agents, Ryu and Lee, in South Korea who have been tracking Hee, an elusive and highly trained (female) communist sniper for nearly a decade. Hee's sudden return to the South gets the agents back on her trail, and this time she's leading a group of terrorists that have been sent to steal a top-secret explosive — a liquid bomb called CTX — that's located somewhere in Seoul. As Lee gets deeper into the search, things suddenly, mysteriously, start to lead back to his fiancé Hyun, and his ability to separate politics and love slowly starts to evaporate. Hyun, adding to the symbolism, owns a fish store, and she and Lee's first romantic scene, early in the movie, involves a lot of rain and fish and puckered kisses. It's moments like this that kind of make you cringe with their blockbuster cutesiness and overdone romantics, but the director keeps the cheesiness under control for the majority of the film, and lets the action and intrigue fuel the story.

Shiri has plenty of eye candy, but its smooth stylistic strokes sometimes give way to MTV kinetics. It opens on Hee, with a steely, steadfast determination in her eyes, going through intense training exercises. This sequence's muted colors, punctuated by the red flow of blood as the assassins put their training to use, capture your attention immediately, and let you know this definitely isn't Titanic. These opening scenes recall Santosh Sivan's little-seen 1999 film The Terrorist, about a young woman in India who goes through a terrorist training camp and eventually becomes an assassin. But the films only resemble each other in theme, and in the fact that the complex "antagonists" are both women terrorists. Shiri is much more polished-owing to its enormous budget-but both films' takes on this theme are worth a look.

A quicksilver pace threads through Shiri, but the director doesn't let this take precedence over the visuals, or the emotional and cerebral elements in the story. If only other action movies would take this approach, and actually base their kickboxing and guns and blood and sex and explosions on stories that are meaningful, either personally or politically, it might just revolutionize a tired, much-ridiculed genre.


Rated R
2 hours 4 minutes

Han Suk Kyu
Choi Min Sik
Han Seok Kyu