Shiri (1999)

Directed by
Liked it more on subsequent viewings
Reviewed by Simon on 2012-05-25

First things first, a clarification... I think I have been unfairly characterised as "hating" SHIRI (possibly by myself ;)) - I actually think SHIRI is an OK movie... even "better than average". What I hate is all the hype, and the way it is waved about as some kind of flagship for Asian Cinema.

SHIRI opens with a scene of North Korean troops training that is positively laughable in the way it makes the North Koreans out to be vicious animals with no morals or decency. One female soldier rises above all the rest by virtue of being tougher and more vicious, and is then seen burning a photograph of her family as she heads off on a special mission to the South as an assassin. This section did not make me warm at all to the movie - I was embarrassed for it.

Next, we shift to South Korea, where 2 special agents of the Korean police (both very nice, decent men you'd happily take home to meet your mother) are on the case of this female assassin Hee, who has been responsible for killing numerous VIPs over the past few years until she disappeared when her identity was exposed. However, when the agents get a call from somebody with information for them, Hee reappears again... killing their contact right in front of them with her expert marksmanship. The hunt is on to find the assassin, and when other members of her North Korean unit appear in Seoul they know that something is "going down". They quickly trace the corpses back to a new type of explosive - the hokily named CTX - indistinguishable from water but more powerful than most nuclear devices. Whatever...

Like Korea itself, SHIRI is a movie of two halves. For the first hour, the pace is pretty slow, and focuses as much on the agents investigation as on their personal lives. One of the agents is a family man in a loving relationship, the other is a bit of a loner, but their relationship with each other is one of strong respect and affection. This is often the part of the movie that is held up as SHIRI's biggest strength, but for me it is one of its weaknesses because it left me emotionally flat. I was watching it, I wasn't specifically bored, but it produced no emotional response in me whatsoever... I wasn't amused, intrigued, excited, concerned, happy, sad... anything. The same reaction I get watching many Hollywood movies - not specifically bad, but no real heart or 'life'.

Somewhere around the hour mark, the movie suddenly shifts gear as the North Korean agents begin putting their plan into action, and the South Korean agents start putting their own plans into action in response. The movie shifts into action thriller pretty quickly, and actually becomes somewhat exciting for a while. In particular there is a shootout that runs for about 10 minutes, and is very well staged and filmed. For about 25 minutes the movie is actually at least a "good", and though it falls off after there it never drops to the emptiness of the first half again.

So, 25 minutes of good movie out of 125 minutes. Not bad - many movies don't manage 3 minutes. Also the movie is well filmed throughout, and has a very good soundtrack. Sure, I'll concede that SHIRI proves that Korea can make an action blockbuster better than 80% of Hollywood's efforts. Big deal - I'm not really bothered about that Hollywood 20% that is even better, so why should I give SHIRI the time of day?

That's definitely one of the things that bother me - if the movie had been made in Hollywood, nobody would be paying it any particular attention. To hold up a movie that would basically be a 'pretty good' Hollywood movie with a different cast & crew and say, "This is what's so great about Asian Cinema" seems particularly sad.

In its own right, SHIRI is a 'pretty good' movie... but if I had to pick a movie to be held up as a flagship for Asian Cinema, I would much rather choose something like Swallowtail Butterfly, Battle Royale, Musa, JSA... even The Avenging Fist or Black Panther Warriors... movies that may not have the glitziness & polish of a Hollywood blockbuster, but do have something that Hollywood seems to have lost the knack of putting into pictures... a cinematic heart and soul :)