Korean cinema has gotten very good at staging impressive onscreen spectacle in recent years. Though $10 million budgets used to be a rare thing, reserved for only the most ambitious and promising films, these days an abundance of these pricey projects are flooding the market. As with everywhere else in the cinema landscape, studios feel a need to continually up the ante as they worry about the diminishing attention spans of their audiences. But for every film that spends its money wisely many more appear that could easily be labeled a waste: of the production budget, as well as the audience's time. Which brings us to The Spy: Undercover Operation.
Korea's top spy, Chul-soo, takes a trip to Thailand when word surfaces of a plot that threatens the homeland. His flight attendant wife Young-hee is also in Bangkok but is unaware of her husband's occupation. Ryan, a mysterious and charming stranger, takes a shine to Young-hee, but he's hiding something. Chul-soo is madly jealous but must restrain himself to hide his identity.
The Spy: Undercover Operation originally began as a project called Mister K to be directed Lee Myung-se, the visionary filmmaker behind titles such as Nowhere to Hide (1999) and Duelist (2005). However, Lee exited the project mid-production, when irreconcilable differences arosebetween him and production house JK Film. Following his departure, in the midst of filming (in Thailand no less), a quick replacement needed to be found. JK Film looked in-house and brought in Lee Seung-jun, an assistant director on Haeundae (2009) and Quick (2011), who was familiar with the film's pre-production. A quick and easy fix, but after switching reins from an avant-garde big-budget filmmaker to a promoted studio hand, a very different picture was born.
One has to feel a little sorry for the leads in the film. Without the existence of Mister K, the notion that thespians like Moon So-ri and Seol Kyung-gu would sign up for such an uninspired project would frankly have been a disappointing one. As things stand, when things went pear-shaped during filming, they most likely weren't left with many options. Rather than entirely derail the film (not to mention lose their paychecks) they remained on board.
Moon and Seol are among the most distinguished actors in Korean cinema and have already starred together on two previous occasions: in Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002). Needless to say those films were among the finest moments of everyone one involved, not to mention Korean cinema in general. Sadly, The Spy: Undercover Operation marks a low point for both. There's nothing particularly wrong with their performances, and they do throw themselves into the physical demands of the parts, but seeing them doing pratfalls and exceedingly broad humor is at times hard to stomach.
As the third lead, Daniel Henney is called on to play a charming, calculating and ridiculously handsome villain. Though his English is far better than what we are often subjected to from Korean actors (he is American after all) his character is as thin as they come. Faring far better are the supporting players, particularly Ra Mi-ran and Ko Chang-seok, who are far more at ease with the throwaway banter and physical humor.
As an action film, The Spy falls completely flat. Derivative and lazy set pieces lack any kind of spark or imagination and when comedy is forced into the middle of them, things only get worse. In a bid to make the film feel like a sprawling international thriller, many foreign performers were brought in for small roles or as extras. While a handful fare okay, the vast majority just look like skinny English teachers (which many likely are) and have no business being passed off as international terrorists.
Melodrama plays a key role in the film, which is hardly surprising given the film's positioning as a Chuseok release, the time of year when Koreans traditionally return home to their families. Moon and Seol play a middle-aged couple seeking to conceive and their argumentative relationship will be familiar to many local viewers. Unfortunately, the film's greatest travesty is casting Moon as an overbearing wife who is constantly the damsel in distress and is only ever portrayed in a positive light when *MINOR SPOILER* she becomes pregnant. It's a regressive and tactless move that leaves a bad aftertaste.
Though the film made it to theaters, whatever spark there may have been to get the project into development in the first place with Lee Myung-se clearly left with him when he disembarked this woefully misjudged misfire. There have been worse films this year, but few have been such a waste of talent and money.
Disclaimer: I watched The Spy: Undercover Operation at a press screening in Seoul without subtitles. While my Korean is not yet strong enough to have caught everything, I understood the vast majority of the film.