[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "Cold Eyes": Soulless City Surveillance
2013 was a stunningly successful year for Korean cinema that saw the top three films ("Miracle in Cell No.7", "Snowpiercer", and "The Face Reader") rack up more than 30 million admissions between them. In addition to these bulging blockbusters, the year's top ten also saw a number of spy films gain the public's favour. Ryoo Seung-wan's "The Berlin File" depicted a classy tale of international espionage, Jang Cheol-soo's sophomore feature "Secretly and Greatly" raced to nearly 7 million, and the domestic spy thriller "Cold Eyes" grinded through July to eventually claim nearly 6 million admissions. Although the podium finishers showcased glittering happy-ever-afters, devastating dystopias, and dreaming dynastic dreamscapes, the latter half of the year's top ten were more shadowy and sane.
Released just a month before the August rush, "Cold Eyes" stuck it out over five weeks and clawed its way into the year's top ten before "Snowpiercer" and "The Terror Live" devastated proceedings. Directed by Cho Ui-seok ("The World of Silence" and "Make It Big") and cinematographer Kim Byeong-seo (who was involved in staging such hits as "Punch", "I Saw the Devil", "Secret Sunshine", and "The Host"), the film tells the tale of a talent young rookie (Han Hyo-joo) who joins an elite team of surveillance experts on their investigation of a massive bank heist that opens the film. Yoon-joo, like her chief and mentor Hwang (played by Sol Kyung-gu), is a highly discerning, observant, and driven up-and-comer whose acute awareness gets her an invitation into this ivory tower of tailing talents. Their investigation on the bank heist is hanging by a thread and have only a slither of a lead keeping them all in the game. Yoon-joo (codenamed "Piglet") has to quickly shake off the new-job jitters and step up if her unit is to track down the man pulling the strings behind the heist.
"Cold Eyes" was based on the 2007 Hong Kong film "Eye in the Sky" by Yau Nai-Hoi, which in turn took its name from the closed-circuit surveillance cameras we find in casinos and other security-conscious venues. Tracking, tailing, and tagging are the team's speciality as they follow potential targets around like an Olympic relay team; constantly wary of 'getting made' or letting their suspects slip away. Most of the action is tense and atmospheric, high-pressured pursuits coordinated by tech-savvy agents with street side know-how. The team, who are affectionately called 'the zoo' due to their animal codenames, are positioned and move around the playing field by their Chief/'Falcon' who has a bird's eye-view of their routes and coordinates matters accordingly. The directors constantly remind us of the power and prevalence of public surveillance, and include numerous shots of closed-circuit cameras and their point of view. These images, along with an equally large number of ticking clocks and timers, reinforce the film's themes and roots, but are not, as Chief Hwang would surely agree, suitable substitutes for a soldier on the ground watching and waiting with their own two eyes.
The story itself comes pregnant with previous spy thrillers; an unoriginal platform that dulls the drama and snuffs the thrill of the chase to a degree. However where "Cold Eyes" shines is through its erratic and thrilling cinematography, pacing, and subtle sense of symmetry within its narrative. Right out of the starting blocks the film grabs you with its crafty fingers, seizing your vision and keeping things interesting without much fluff or fight. Fast cutting, detailed close-ups, Dutch-tilts, and its snappy structure keeps "Cold Eyes" cinematically alive against the familiar backdrop of urban surveillance and city spying. The film also seems to be very conscious of its structure, and so even while the film tries to sneak up on its generic outcome, on its own terms the film is sagely sutured and smuggles in enough of its own identity to silhouette itself against the familiarity of it all.
One of the main driving points in such a film is the relationship between rookie and legend, and in this vital regard the film delivers. Sol Kyung-gu and Han Hyo-joo's feed off each sadistically and more intuitively as the film progresses, and the supporting cast (including a last-minute cameo from Simon Yam who starred in the Hong Kong original) are all quite likeable, albeit empathetically inert/disposable. Han Hyo-joo's performance was central to its success, and her efforts where duly noted at both the Buil Film Awards and the Blue Dragon Film Awards where she won Best Actress. The film was also nominated in other categories (e.g. Best Cinematography, Editing, Lighting, Music) within these and other festivals, but it was only Han herself that got to say her acceptance speech.
Korean cinema has an impressive growing archive of spy thrillers, and although "Cold Eyes" managed to crack a top ten, the film lacked sheen and at times felt dead behind the eyes. The film was cinematic and highly entertaining, an intense urban trek that keep my attention throughout, but, unfortunately, it struggled at times and the stakes just weren't attractive/empathetic enough to get my eyes and heart to work as one. It's technically sexy, but emotively aloof. Overall, "Cold Eyes" was a heart-gagging city sneak that catered towards my scopophilia, but left me cold, dry, and too safe for comfort.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA