Ever wondered what Spooks might have been like had it been made on the border between North and South Korea? Probably not, but now’s your chance to find out anyway, because 88 Films has just released the movie edit of Iris (a hugely popular twenty-episode TV series broadcast in the autumn of 2009) for the first time on Blu-ray here in the West. Basically it’s South Korea’s answer to the aforementioned Spooks. Or perhaps J.J. Abrams’ Alias, to which it actually bears a greater resemblance.
Iris stars the immensely charismatic Lee Byung-hun as Kim Hyun-jun, a special agent with the National Security Service (NSS) who’s sent on a black ops mission to Hungary in order to perform a tit-for-tat assassination. Little does Kim know that it is in reality a suicide mission, and when he survives, a chain of events is set in motion that ultimately leads to the threat of a nuclear bomb detonating in Seoul.
The similarity to Alias comes when Lee discovers he’s not actually a pawn in a game of espionage between the South and North, but that there’s a third party involved - the eponymous organisation Iris - with ties to both sides and with a vested financial and political interest in stirring up war between the nations. All this is happening against the backdrop of Lee’s relationship with co-worker Choi Seung-hee (the rather fetching Kim Tae-hee), a secret affair that gets tested far beyond any ordinary limits during the course of the film. Fans of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might like to try and second-guess how this all pans out, but there’s major chemistry going on between the two actors.
Iris on TV was directed by Kim Kyu-tae, and shot concurrently with this two-hour movie version (overseen by Yang Yun-ho), which whittles a twenty-hour story down to just a tenth of that length - to greater and lesser degrees of success. It’s incredibly fast-moving, with sequences that you can imagine might have filled an entire television episode lasting mere moments in the movie version. The relationship between Kim and Choi perhaps suffers most, despite the editors’ attempts to keep it front and centre of the story. And keen eyes will notice the frequent but thankfully brief shots that have been speeded up - mostly during the equally frequent action sequences.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever sat in front of episodic serial TV and wished it would get to the point a bit more quickly, this is the perfect antidote. Several instalments’ worth of narrative set and filmed in Hungary is over within the opening half an hour, and things just accelerate from there. It’s perfectly easy to follow, but brutally quick. And surprisingly entertaining.
IRIS - THE MOVIE / DIRECTOR: KYOO-TAE KIM, YUN-HO YANG / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: BYUNG-HUN LEE, TAE-HEE KIM, SEUNG-HYUN CHOI / CERT: 15 / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW