It’s been a smash hit in its home country, but judging it purely on its title and appearance, The Berlin File doesn’t look like any typical Korean movie, more like a cold war spy thriller. That’s exactly where the film seems to have taken its inspiration from though, as the Europe-set story features a complex plot set in the world of international espionage (a John Le Carré book is even featured in a key scene).
After an arms deal between several parties goes wrong in Berlin, Pyo Jong-seong (a suitably restrained Ha Jung-woo), is revealed as a ‘ghost’ North Korean spy. He thinks he’s been set up, suggesting there’s a double agent within the North Korean embassy, where his wife (Jeon Ji-hun) works as a translator. Some people think he himself might be the double agent, including Jung Jin-soo (Han Suk-kyu, who starred in the similarly themes Shiri), a South Korean intelligence agent who’s after him. Making matters worse, Pyongyang have sent ferocious operative Dong Myung-soo (Ryoo Seung-bum) after him too to find answers.
The plot involves operatives from several other countries in places, including the CIA, and becomes somewhat overcomplicated and hard to follow at times. Director Ryoo Seung-wan, probably best known for City of Violence, keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace throughout. It’s mostly well performed, particularly from Ryoo Seung-bum, but has several scenes in English where weak dialogue is apparent. There is a complexity to the relationship between Jong-seong and his wife, they apparently care for each other but visibly lack any kind of romance now, the strength of their connection will comes into play as she, working at the embassy, is a suspect too.
Ryoo Seung-wan’s real strength throughout The Berlin File is his handling of action scenes. There are several great set-pieces, including shoot-outs, chases and fights, shot and edited sharply, that add a good deal of excitement to the film. Though it touches on some serious themes of loyalty and international relations, The Berlin File works best as an energetic chase film, a mixture of western spy thriller and eastern action.