South Korean cinema has been on fire for a little over a decade at this point. After the world was introduced to My Sassy Girl, JSA, and then Oldboy, the entire game was changed. Yet, for all of the massive blockbuster releases from South Korea, such as The Host, there are still lower budget films being made within Korea which do not feature the glamor and massive amounts of publicity given to the larger pictures. Iris: The Movie is a title that falls somewhere in between. Featuring a notable star such as Lee Byung-Hun (I Saw the Devil, GI Joe), you might be surprised to see this big actor popping up in a feature that so obviously lacks the massive budget of the films that Byung-Hun is better known for. You might also be surprised to find out that Iris was actually a television program from South Korea to start with. At the time, it was the most expensive program to ever make it to Korean television. An espionage series dealing with spies, killers, and dealing explicitly with the reunification of Korea, this was very high ambitious stuff to be doing on television. However, when you make the jump to the big screen, those with the creative power find themselves stepping into a vastly different medium. So, how does Iris: The Movie fair in comparison to other espionage classics? Well, you’ll have to read on to find out.
Apparently the original nugget of knowledge behind Iris came from producers who were wanting to flesh out the espionage-thriller Shiri into a television series. Shiri was actually one of the first South Korean films I had ever seen, and it still holds a very special place in my heart. What made that movie special wasn’t anything that necessarily excluded it from the Hollywood establishment, but instead it was powerful because it almost seemed self aware of its genre tropes. The film always remained one step ahead of the audience. When we knew it would zig, it would zig. However, when it came time to zag, the movie would throw a complete curve ball. For whatever reason, when Iris finally started to take shape, it became its own project entirely. The general plot follows a special agent within the National Security Service (NSS) named Hyeon-jun (played by Lee Byung-hun). Hyeon-jun is a special agent sent on a mission to assassinate a political figure who stands between the reunification of North and South Korea. However, when things go spectacularly wrong with this mission, Hyeon-jun is left trying to escape an entire army all by himself. When he calls in for rescue, he finds himself on the receiving end of a terrible screwjob. Now, not only are the North Korean officials searching for Hyeon-jun, his former employees send in his "friend" Sa-woo (played by Jeong Jun-Ho) to assassinate him as well. Sa-woo is a former friend from school, but their friendship was divided when they both fell in love with the same woman: the lovley Seung-hee (Kim Tae-Hee). Now, with two countries essentially waging a war against him, Hyeon-jun must find a way to survive and set everything right.
Similar to all sorts of spy dramas, Iris is a bit on the derivative side. There are traces of Mission Impossible, both the movies and TV show, to be found here, as well as your basic James Bond style skullduggery. Generally, if you enjoy a spy-related potboiler, then there is a good chance you’ll enjoy Iris. However, there is a great deal of melodrama at play in the feature as well. Korean television has been making a name for itself in the melodrama market, but Iris: The Movie is a project that could be deflective of any criticisms. If claims are to be believed, the project was originally conceived as both a 20 episode television drama as well as a feature length movie. Yet, everyone seems to concede that the project shares most of its footage with the television series while incorporating only a few additional scenes that help the story flow together. As someone who has never seen one episode of the original television program, I cannot say whether it too was as rife with emotional melodrama as this feature film turns out to be, but knowing Korean television and the nature of their romantic feature films, it is entirely possible that it was always a melodramatic haven. However, any time you take several hours of programming and condense it into two hours, there is going to be a lack of dramatic buildup. What audiences might be left with in this feature is the payoff of an emotional resonance that was built up fully within the television series, but delivered with an intensity that belies a much deeper story while cutting out a ton of buildup for the actors/characters within this movie. With all of this said, the intensely emotional nature of the performances don’t detract from the movie much, but it certainly doesn’t stand out as the best example of Asian melodrama.
Going into the movie having foreknowledge that it shared its content with an entire season of a television program, audiences are likely to expect a very episodic script. In many ways, this turns out to be true, but not nearly as bad as one might think. The story only stops occasionally, and there seems to be a flowing narrative that treats the main arch as being a universal constant from start to finish. There are only a select few miniature subplots that develop along the way that feature conflict/resolution on a repeated basis. These little "episodes" are fairly minuscule and don’t seem to take much steam away from the progress of the feature story. There is a love story/triangle that remains fairly consistent throughout the project, and the development of the characters is also quite persistent. However, this does not mean that the overall plot is without its own issues. At its time length, the movie runs into pacing issues. Regardless of the fact that this was originally a much larger project, with the content streamlined into a two hour package,the movie comes across as a series of talking head sequences that are only occasionally punctuated by actions. With so much to get across, the viewers are left with a number of twists and turns that are almost always revealed through back and forth bits of dialogue. When there are action sequences or quiet character moments, they almost always work, which makes it all the more disappointing that we don’t see more of that in this feature.
Shot on a television budget, Iris does indeed look like a TV product. Shot on very obvious digital video, the movie doesn’t always appear fantastic, but it does occasionally hide its simplicity by staging outlandish action setpieces. Featuring a couple of very brazen gunfights during the course of the movie, Iris may have the television "look," but it doesn’t share the lack of imagination found in most television. Instead, it features action sequences that bring to mind various moments in Heat or many other big Hollywood action capers. With intense gun battles and superb squib work, there is no wonder why Iris was such a huge deal in the South Korean television market. With content that pushes the boundaries of acceptability with the resentment between the two nations of North and South Korea, Iris does indeed turn out to be a button-pusher. Even though it is certainly easy to lose track within the random scenes of excessive dialog and intentional exposition, the movie has enough focus to remain rather interesting. It wouldn’t show up on my end-of-the-year list, but its certainly a product worth checking out if you’re a fan of Lee Byung-hun, and honestly, who isn’t?