on February 08, 2002 by Wade Major
   It's a sad state of affairs when a film as dynamic and accomplished as “Shiri” is denied access to the American market for more than four years, presumably because no distributor could be impressed that a market for the high-impact Asian action film existed.

   Imagine that.

   Finally, thanks to the Samuel Goldwyn Company and IDP Distribution, “Shiri” is poised to make its American debut, which should solidly put doubters and skeptics on their heels.

   Like the very best Hong Kong action movies of the '80s, including those by John Woo, “Shiri” steals and borrows its staple elements from American genres and improves upon them with uniquely Asian sensibilities. Written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu, the film centers on the mini-Cold War that has existed for decades between North and South Korea. South Korean intelligence agents Lee (Song Kang-Ho) and Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu) are two of the country's best, but for years they've been unable to stop the murderous rampage of Hee (KimYun-Jin), a ruthless North Korean spy/sniper responsible for the deaths of numerous figures from South Korean's scientific, military and political establishments. Hee also happens to be a woman--a lethal beauty in the proud tradition first pioneered in Hong Kong and popularized in such films as Luc Besson's “La Femme Nikita.” But now Hee is no longer working alone. An elite force of North Korea's best special forces have penetrated the border with their sights set on an experimental new super-explosive developed in the south. Unless Lee and Ryu can stop them, the political and human toll could be cataclysmic.

   With the films of John Woo as a clear model, writer/director Kang has distanced himself from the Hollywood tradition of divorcing eye-popping action from gripping human drama. Though “Shiri's” eruptions of violence, mayhem and gunplay are every bit as kinetic and dazzling as anything generated in Hong Kong or Hollywood, the film's primary focus is always on its characters. What impresses most about “Shiri,” in fact, is that the conventions and clichés it borrows from similar American efforts never seem familiar. Here, they are merely pyrotechnic sidebars to a powerful human story--visceral adornments that serve as emotional triggers at key turning points along the way.

   Much like “Nowhere to Hide” by Lee Myung-Se, “Shiri” testifies to a growing and maturing Korean industry that has been heavily influenced by movies from the U.S. and Hong Kong. Unlike similar efforts, however, it is the first to add a dynamic, uniquely Korean touch to those influences, sending them back to whence they came with more style, greater intensity and more penetrating emotion than Hollywood has.    Starring Han Suk-Gyu, Song Kang-Ho, Kim Yun-Jin and Choi Min-Sik. Directed by Kang Je-Gyu. Written by Kang Je-Gyu. Produced by Lee Kwan-Hak, Byun Moo-Rim. An IDP release. Action/Drama. Korean-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong violence and some language. Running time: 125 min.

Tags: Han Suk-Gyu, Song Kang-Ho, Kim Yun-Jin, Choi Min-Sik, Kang Je-Gyu, Lee Kwan-Hak, Byun Moo-Rim, IDP, Action, Drama, Shiri, Lee, Ryu, spy, sniper

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