Set in 1920s Japanese-occupied Korea, "The Age Of Shadows" depicts the story of a band of motley resistance fighters staging an act of defiance through navigating the hurdles of acquiring resources, of fending off turncoat pursuers, and of exposing a mole infiltration. The storyline employs the oft-used wartime device of a greatly outnumbered, improbable challenger bucking the overwhelming presence of an oppressor by sheer wit and grit, and, in parts of the telling, exploits the device to great effect.
Able acting by the principal players and a well-sequenced cat-and-mouse confrontation aboard a rolling train help to deliver a compelling tale in the latter half of the film. Set, costuming, color grading and grand cinematography further effectively transport the viewer's eye. Production value is high.
The picture falters in the opening half through a pieced series of scenes or bits of dialogue which recurrently feel contrived and leave the viewer questioning, for example, how this character or that one transported himself or a proxy with such ease to the doorstep of another. The slower first-hour pace, with which some other reviewers take issue, is not a concern, it builds the suspense. Rather it is that the scenes feel too pat. Perhaps through the large number of location transitions, footage which would have better supported the development of a scene was cut, and through inadept editing, several which should have gone to cutting room floor were left in--the extra ending, for one, which clarifies destination of the other half of the explosives, seems unnecessary and adds nothing to the story's impact. The white-curtained strangling and stabbing of the preening man upstairs at the cocktail target, to name just another, also does not advance the story and seems extraneous.
Other distractions, some minor, include some of the lighting at night which feels artificial and staged, head hair which does not appear to grow or even become mussed after weeks in jail, rolling stock which, from the views inside, feels few in number (that is, the train seems short) relative to the prolonged time after which antagonists finally identify protagonists, and mediocre performances by some of the supporting players.
The film is at its best when focused at length on a particular scene and when there is action. Better editing and richer dialogue, even pregnant quiet, in place of the frequently changing and, for example, unconvincing and daft drinking scenes, could have sent this otherwise engaging story over the top.
To help me determine whether to pass two-plus hours watching Shadows, I skimmed three or four of the IMDb viewer-submitted write-ups before my viewing, and they were fully informative. After the viewing, I recalled, among other comments, a reference to sepia in regards to the processing, but this description did not seem entirely accurate to me, and so after I wrote, revised and closed my thoughts above to any further edits, but before posting my review, I Googled these terms all together: the age of shadows Jee-woon Kim color grading. And seven hits down the list, this link was returned: "Foreign Contenders: Cloak-And-Dagger Thriller The Age of Shadows Has Kim Jee-woon Channeling His Inner Patriot," by Carlos Aguilar, December 12, 2016.
It is a superbly concise and insightful interview from a resource unknown to me, MovieMaker, with the director, Kim Jee-woon. In it he addresses the aforementioned color grading and the nighttime lighting I criticized (the set-up the director describes is precisely what I was picturing, and my recollection of it centered in particular around a sustained nighttime dolly close-up of the profile of lead Lee Jung-chool walking in the street: the flat light on his face did not change one iota under any passing street lamps or light from nearby homes, it was as if there was a large soft box held some feet in front of and above his head and moved in sync with the tracking shot). He also discusses aspects of the financing and some of the equipment and logistics specifics, makes a curious offhand comment about Park Chan-wook's stand-out "The Handmaiden," and adds about himself this perceptive comment, "Conversation scenes are the most challenging to me, because it's about relaying your thoughts or your mind to the audience."
If you enjoyed the film, the interview is a highly recommended, short read.