Director: Kyoo-tae Kim, Yun-ho Yang
Screenplay: Gyu-won Jo, Hyeon-jun Kim, Jae-eun Kim
Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-hee, Jung Joon-ho
Duration: 117 min
Country: South Korea
BBFC Certification: 15
The most successful TV series in South Korean history, Iris was a 20-part espionage drama revolving around two friends who are recruited into a secret South Korean black ops agency and soon get thrown into the centre of an international conspiracy. Shortly after airing it was decided that the series would be edited down to a 2 hour film to be released theatrically. In addition to the edit, new scenes were filmed to expand on the original storyline, including a completely new and extended ending.
Iris: The Movie focuses on the South Korean National Security Service (NSS), an organization that attempts to disturb North Korean terrorist activity as well as their nuclear program. Opening in Budapest, we follow NSS operative Kim Hyun-jun (Lee Byung-hun) who has fallen in love with fellow operative Choi Seung-hee (Kim Tae-hee). Unhappy with this is Kim’s best friend Jin Sa-woo (Jung Joon-ho) who is also smitten with Choi. When Hyun-jun is shot and injured while on a mission, his boss sends Jin to assassinate him. However, Jin fails and Hyun-jun goes on the run and discovers a plot by North Koreas to detonate a nuclear device in Seoul.
The film is exhausting and fast moving, with kinetic editing and scenes that you can imagine filling an entire television episode lasting mere moments here. Case in point is the love triangle between the 3 leads – this is told in a 60 second flashback that you can tell was originally enacted over a number of episodes. Unfortunately, I found this extremely condensed narrative a little hard to follow and had to replay quite a number of scenes just so I could figure out who new characters were and their relevance to the story. Also I noticed that a lot of the action sequences were sped up at times (probably to squeeze a bit more footage into the running time), but it just seemed off and left my eyes feeling quite tired. Although I struggled with the pace of the film, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who would prefer this abridged version to having to commit 20 hours of their life to the series.
The acting is in the main very good, especially from Lee Byung-hun. He is a very charismatic actor, very much South Korea’s answer to Tom Cruise, and is mostly known outside of his homeland for the G.I. Joe films. He portrays Kim Hyun-jun as a slightly naïve, but powerfully effective spy. Jung Joo-ho has the viewer sympathising with his character, despite the fact that he betrays Kim and ultimately becomes the villain. As the film progresses we see him battle with his emotions as he hunts down his best friend and comes to terms with his unrequited love for Choi. It is Kim Tae-hee who gives the weakest performance here, but she has little to work with as Choi is written pretty much as an object of male affection.
The cinematography is outstanding for a TV series masquerading as a feature film. Shot in beautiful blue grey tones that really look good on this Blu-ray transfer. As you would expect from a spy film, there are plenty of gorgeous locations most notably Budapest and Seoul. The direction from Kyoo-tae Kim and Yun-ho Yang is solid, with well-choreographed fight scenes and stunt sequences.
88 Films releases are usually well presented with bonus materials and collector’s edition, but I was disappointed that this was a bare bones release with no extras on either the Blu-ray or DVD in this dual format edition. To be fair, there probably wasn’t a lot of B-roll footage shot and both the series and film are little known outside of South-East Asia. I wouldn’t be surprised if Iris builds a cult following in the West over time.
Iris: The Movie is a very exciting action film if you can keep up with the frenetic narrative. Its plot is actual quite old fashioned and undoubtedly is influenced by the work of John le Carre, but put through a modern day Bourne or Mission: Impossible filter. It won’t be for everyone, but is worth checking out.
Iris: The Movie is released on dual format Blu-ray/DVD by 88 Films.