March 2, 2013

The Berlin File: The Bourne Identity by Way of Korea - North, South and Abroad

Ryu Seung-wan's The Berlin File feels aspirational. The goal? To break into the American movie multiplex. With more than enough English to excerpt for a mass-market trailer intended to dupe unsuspecting Yanks into buying tickets, this Bourne Identity with a North Korean slant hopes to appease its misinformed foreign audience with plenty of gunfire, big explosions, hand-to-hand combat and international politics (with a minimum number of subtitles). Yet while a savvy marketing strategy may fill The Berlin File's stateside seats on opening weekend, the word of mouth in any language is unlikely to do so thereafter.

Where does The Berlin File go wrong? Part of the problem may be that the star lineup is so lopsided. Despite its bilingual dreams, the only familiar faces (to someone who knows both Korean and American cinema) are the Korean ones. So while you've got Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser), Jun Gianna (My Sassy Girl) and Han Suk-kyu (Green Fish) on one side, the Europeans and Americans populating this Berlin are all no-namers. Personally, I think the addition of a Skeet Ulrich or a Joe Morton would've gone a long way to generate international appeal.

Especially when you consider the stilted delivery of the English dialogue by most of the Koreans here. Lines are uttered like memorized sounds, not words — never mind sentences. And let's face it: A convoluted plot about terrorism needs to be said with conviction. With the exception of Ryu Seung-beom (who appears to be relishing his role as a villain after years of playing comic cutie), the other Korean actors only appear at ease when speaking their native tongue. (That might be a problem for that aforementioned trailer!)

That said, I respect The Berlin File's aim. How crazy is it that despite Korea being a powerhouse in world cinema for a decade, it still has yet to garner a single Oscar nomination for best foreign film. What needs to happen to generate that level of respect? Kim Ki-duk's Pieta snagged the top prize at Venice in 2012. Let's hope American laurels lie ahead.

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