It's always fascinating to see how other cultures interpret film genres identified with the American movie industry. Written and directed by leading South Korean filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan and featuring many of the country's top actors, The Berlin File is a big-budget action movie/spy thriller that bears little resemblance to those churned out by Hollywood. The broad strokes and heroic posturing are familiar, and equally dominant is the choreographed gunplay made famous by John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers. There also is the occasional martial-arts-style confrontation formerly associated with movies from southeast Asia. Viewed with Western eyes, the whole thing may not quite come together, but it does seem an earnest attempt at forging a uniquely South Korean action style.
The Berlin File's convoluted plot involves warring agents from South and North Korea, many of whom display blurred allegiances and may or may not be double agents. The Berlin setting is meant to evoke the Cold War — at one point, one spy delivers a photograph to another by hiding it in a John Le Carre novel — while providing historical context for those unfamiliar with the Korean conflict. But much of the crucial detail is lost in translation of a script that mixes German, Korean, and English language dialogue. It's hard to say which is more difficult to decipher — the broken English of the Korean actors or the comically inadequate and grammatically challenged English subtitles. But the set pieces are a hoot, especially a mind-blowing sequence in which a spy falls through a four-story glass atrium and survives after getting tossed around by snapping electrical cables. Sometimes dialogue is not necessary. — KEN KORMAN