- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

''Shiri" is a delirious and debilitating Korean espionage thriller playing at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.
What does the title mean? At one point, I was sure that "Shiri" must be Korean for "Step On It." That's what the heroes, South Korean counterespionage agents named Ryu and Lee, frequently need to do to chase the villains. The bad guys are North Korean infiltrators and saboteurs called Hee and Park, the deadliest members of a commando team that intends to provoke a new war, leading to the Holy Grail of "unification" under communist tyranny.
As time dragged on, I was more inclined to favor "A Step Behind" as a better title. Ryu and Lee and government SWAT teams are left pretty much at the mercy of the conspirators, who seem to slaughter about 3 million residents of Seoul while taking one or two casualties among their own. Ryu is so slow on the uptake that he doesn't recognize Hee (Kim Yun-jin), a notorious she, while the elusive Mata Hari masquerades in plain sight of him.
Foreign language films remind you how much is taken for granted from one culture to the next. Kang Je-gyu, the fitfully hyperkinetic director of "Shiri," may believe that he has concealed the bad girl, but the movie has only one leading female character, and she's obviously the same dame from commando training camp to a more intimate situation.
"Shiri" actually is a freshwater fish indigenous to the demilitarized zone, and the plot exploits rare fish and aquarium tanks to a great extent. The pivotal species is kissing gourami, or kissing fish, which might be a catchier title.
What with one thing or another, "Shiri" proves to be a ludicrous enigma, although popular in the Far East. It would appear to be the latest shoot'em-up laboring under the influence of John Woo's Hong Kong police thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s.
Mr. Kang obviously wants to blow the audience away while evoking epic themes of loyalty and betrayal, love and death, apocalyptic national rivalry, heroic sacrifice, cliffhanging salvation and so on.
Perhaps the lofty aspirations make it likelier that he'll mangle minor details, such as a countdown on a doomsday explosive that obviously has the official digital clock running much too fast for the sequence.
Everything should blow up at least half a minute before Ryu supposedly intervenes to cool a critical mass, shaped like a red rubber ball and heating up in one of the ubiquitous aquarium tanks.
When you hear "Shiri," think sheer sensationalistic lunacy.

1/2*
TITLE: "Shiri"
RATING: R (Intermittent graphic violence, typified by extended gunfights and often accentuated by gruesome illustrative details)
CREDITS: Directed by Kang Je-gyu. In Korean with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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