When a filmmaker makes a great debut, expectations are bound to be quite high for the follow-up. Such was the case for Jang Cheol-soo, who took the world by storm with his terrific island revenge saga Bedevilled in 2010.
When word first surfaced of his next feature, which would see him adapt the popular webcomic Secretly Greatly, the initial buzz was one of excitement. However, as it progressed through casting and then production, it became more and more clear that this would be a completely different kind of film, and certainly not one aimed at the audience that was so enthralled by his debut.
Starring a trio of fresh-faced and supremely popular TV stars, Secretly Greatly is a resolutely commercial film that seeks to placate one specific demographic: teenage girls. Following a successful independent feature that had a good showing in limited release and won numerous accolades abroad, Jang was given his shot at the big time. He took it, and, judging by the young crowds that descended upon the film upon its release, he delivered exactly what the studio wanted.
A top North Korean operative is sent undercover to the South where he must await his commands. He resides in a small neighborhood outside of Seoul, playing the part of the village idiot as he lives and works in a corner store and is pelted with debris by the local children. After two years undercover, he is joined by two more young operatives, disguised as a wannabe rocker and a high school student, respectively. Soon after, following a change in policy in the North's administration, their outfit is earmarked for termination and the order comes down for them to commit suicide.
Secretly Greatly may not be in the same league as Jang's Bedevilled, but one thing that has crossed over with him is his strong command of mise-en-scene, and particularly his keen feel for location. One of Bedevilled's strongest assets was its sundrenched and weather-beaten island. Bright and austere, it had shades of Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island (1960). With his new film, the action shifts to a dilapidated neighborhood in Incheon, a large satellite town adjacent to Seoul. Hilly and earthy, it's the antithesis of the tower block Legoland of modern Korea. Though I didn't care a great deal for the people that inhabited it, the neighborhood came alive in a glorious way. Its thin alleys and multi-colored roofs, as dexterously explored by Jang's camera, afforded it far more character than the film's protagonists.
Kim Soo-hyun, Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo may be big stars with massive appeal for young girls, but as feature film performers I can't give them much more than a passing grade. Granted, their thin roles didn't give them much to work with. You would think that North Korean teenagers/young adults sent to go undercover in Korea and promptly ordered to kill themselves would require something to be going on beneath the surface, but that's never really the case here. Trained as TV actors, subtlety is hard to come by in Secretly Greatly's young cast.
Though this is a film with largely comic overtones, it does become very serious as it progresses. However, the simplistic nature of the characterizations and plotting never evolve beyond the needs of broad comedy. As such, while the first hour is a perfectly digestible and well-filmed bit of high-concept fluff, the film's back half becomes a terrible slog. What's more, the emotional response it seeks to inspire is terribly disingenuous. The script has clearly been reworked a great deal to include a great many surefire emotional triggers. However, unlike better local films that rely on strong character work to elicit the audience's sympathy, Secretly Greatly's attempts are thinly veiled ruses.
Streamlined and commercialized to the nth degree, Secretly Greatly is nothing if not slick and terrifically easy to follow. But it's also devoid of a soul, and when combined with the film's clear commercial bent, it doesn't leave a great deal to appreciate. Jang has gone the way of his compatriot Jo Sung-hee, who, following his excellent post-apocalyptic debut End of Animal (2010), went the way of the tween blockbuster with last year's A Werewolf Boy. Whether he was pushed down this commercial path or went willingly, Jang is capable of a great deal more than Secretly Greatly. Let's just hope it's his ticket to bigger budgets and greater creative control.