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While the spy in western culture cuts an exotic or dashing figure, à la James Bond, Jack Ryan, or Ethan Hunt, in South Korea, things are more matter-of-fact.  Having to keep their own national secrets, and one-up their neighbours in North Korea in real life over many decades, the spy image is less Jason Bourne, than some military working stiff with a patriotic soul.

That’s pretty much what we have in Park Seok-young, an army major who unhappily takes the role of an undercover agent in order to infiltrate and suss out North Korea’s budding nuclear capabilities.  Based on the real life “Black Venus” operation of the mid-1990s, Park posed as a businessman interested in setting up an advertising cooperative between North and South Korea, which would not only forge a tiny crack in the two countries’ cold war, but most importantly to the impoverished Northern government, allow an influx of much-needed new money.

Playing a long, slow game, dropping breadcrumbs throughout China, Park eventually obtains the interest of North Korean authorities, including a highly-placed finance czar, Ri Myung-woon, who sees a lot of promise in Park’s money-making proposal. 

However, hardline General Jung Moo-taek is also interested, because he smells a capitalist rat.  Park’s operation -- indeed his very life -- depends on his being able to walk the tightrope between the entrepreneur just out for a ‎₩on, and the intelligence agent, mentally or literally recording every interaction, and trying to carry out the increasingly dangerous demands of his government. 

Those demands threaten to blow the entire operation, as South Korea is gripped in a tight presidential election.  The government in power rejects the opposing candidate, who desires a lessening of the tensions between the two Koreas.  Park becomes privy to their age-old routine of amping up the South Korean public’s fear by making a surreptitious request for North Korea to shoot a small missile, or let a submarine be sighted too close to ROK shores.  Such pretend sabre-rattling gives the militaristic Southern regime a need to stay in power, and earns the starving North a few bags of flour.

Uneasy about this fraudulent voter manipulation, Park, who has now got the ear of Kim Jong-il, himself, must find a way to persuade Dear Leader that playing into the South’s hands is actually not in his country’s best interests.  The trick is in how to do that without giving himself away to the suspicious North, or being labelled a traitor to his own team?

As expected in a tale of a cold war, THE SPY GONE NORTH takes a bit of warming up.  There’s a lot of eye-crossingly labourious exposition to get through in the first 20 minutes.  Then once Ri and Jung meet Park, the weight falls away, and the film becomes streamlined and sharp.  Director Yoon Jong-bin creates a world so claustrophobic, even out in the fields of North Korea, or the streets of Beijing (A fine acting job by Taiwan), there’s a sense of a hand constantly around Park’s throat.  

The danger Park faces affects not only himself, but threatens his unaware family members in South Korea.  Their lives also depend on his being able to maintain his disguise flawlessly, as he is being surveilled on all sides, including his own.  Yet, he must collect the intelligence the South needs, including going to forbidden areas of the North to meet other agents ready to pass him nuclear secrets; all while perfectly perpetrating this front of the advertising executive.  Park takes dangerous gambles in his search for information, all while pretending to be the guileless, grinning adman, while the taciturn General Jung and the entire North Korean entourage clock his every move.

It is one of Hwang Jung-min’s best performances.  For a while, now, I’d begun to doubt whether there was more to Hwang’s acting than that loosey-goosey, laid back -- even in the face of danger -- quasi-comedic character we’ve seen him play over and over in films like ODE TO MY FATHER, THE HIMALAYAS, A VIOLENT PROSECUTOR and BATTLESHIP ISLAND.  I wondered if the similarity of his performances was due to the characters offered, or was that all there was to Hwang’s acting style?  He’s not clear of that in THE SPY GONE NORTH, but that easygoing manner worked perfectly for the role of Park. 

He is a good-natured businessman, so well-liked he is even able to break Dear Leader’s ironclad rules of personal engagement, but then drops that persona to get down to spy business; bugging North Korean officers’ rooms, and beating his own authorities at their own double-crosses.  If Park has none of the joie de vivre of a James Bond, he certainly has a real-life spy’s quick wits and intelligence.  Watching Park outsmart his quarry is a huge part of the movie’s fun.

For a good as Hwang is, it is Lee Sung-min who steals the film as the beleaguered North Korean official, Ri.  In his way, Ri is more mysterious than Park: What exactly are his motivations?  Does he know that Park isn’t what he seems?  Why is he willing to risk life in a prison camp, or worse, for himself and his family, to make this advertising scheme work?  We never know what is in Ri’s head until he tells us, and even then we’re not entirely sure.  It’s Lee’s layered and delicately crafted portrayal as the conflicted party head who truly loves his country, but yearns for what it could be, that brings the film much of its sizzle.

I praised Ju Ji-hoon in my review of ALONG WITH THE GODS: THE LAST 49 DAYS as being meant for the A List.  He hasn’t a ton to do as the distrustful General Jung, but gives his soldier enough cold threat and youthful brashness that adds a spark to the 140-minute movie.  Along with Lee’s Ri character, Ju’s Jung gives us a glimpse at two very different types of North Korean officials, and what makes them tick.

Other sequences, like Park’s walk off the carefully-beaten path, show a shockingly dire North Korea, complete with yards-high piles of bodies in open lots, dead from starvation or sickness, while children lie in wait to rob any item of worth from their cold corpses.  Also unnerving are any scenes with Park meeting Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in a performance by Ki Joo-bong so uncanny it’ll have viewers asking ‘Is it live, or is it Memorex (-- or CGI).’  The physical resemblance is shockingly close and the dictator’s fey, laughable appearance -- spherically rotund, with immaculately-groomed Maltese in tow at high level meetings, and lots of daytime drinking -- is contrasted with the simmering, palpable threat that even looking above the second button of Kim’s shirt could get a person executed.  It’s a chilling representation of the danger that Park faces every minute he’s across the border.

There is something to be said for the film’s timeliness, which seems purely coincidental:  The movie began production in January 2017; but the old has become new again, and the world’s eyes are once again turned to the tense relationship between North and South Korea.  While this is a film worth watching at any time, current events adds to the excitement, nonetheless, and gives international eyes a primer for the world that was.

After a sluggish start, once the action gets underway, THE SPY GONE NORTH moves as sleek and sharp as a shark through water, thanks to its taut thrills and excellent performances.  Tense, smart, and loaded with edge-of-your-seat suspense, THE SPY GONE NORTH is terrific summer movie viewing.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug 9th, 2018

 

 

 

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