Director Yoon Jong-bin goes back to the 90s in a very different kind of North Korean espionage story.
Following his period action blockbuster Kundo: The Age of the Rampant in 2014, Yoon Jong-bin is back in the summer season lineup with his 90s-set espionage drama The Spy Gone North, which bowed earlier this year as part of the midnight lineup of the Cannes Film Festival. A timely though occasionally dense tale of covert agents and behind-closed-doors deals, the film employs detailed production values and a fascinating geopolitical context in a year that has seen the present-day Koreas draw closer than ever before.
In the early 1990s, South Korean agent Park Seok-yeong is tasked with a special mission - he must pose as a South Korean businessman in China and try to to enter into a businessman relationship with North Korea. His real objective is to gain intelligence on North Korea's nuclear weapons development. Following an elaborate ruse and with a fabricated backstory, he gets the introduction he needs and sits down with North Korean official Lee Myung-woon in Beijing. The pair slowly build a relationship that eventually sees them strike an advertising deal, whereby South Korean companies rent out North Korean locations for advertisements. As time goes by, Seok-yeong become more entangled with the regime but a suspicious North Korean security officer and looming presidential elections in the South complicate matters for him.
Without an all-action spy lead such as a Hyun Bin (Confidential Assignment), Gong Yoo (The Suspect) or Jung Woo-sung (Steel Rain) dashing all around the place, The Spy Gone North presents itself as a very different kind of North Korean espionage story filled with double-talk and shadow-filled rooms. In that sense, it takes after Tomas Alfredson's John le Carré adaptation Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has become popular among Korean filmmakers, and already provided a key influence for Kim Jee-won's The Age of Shadows.
At the outset, Yoon's film appears to be about a man on a mission, but as the story moves forward it finds a far more compelling narrative crux as it becomes a survival story about the symbiotic relationship between the Hermit Kingdom of the North and the conservative ruling party in the South. At the risk of offering a history lesson or spoiling the film's surprises, the story places great emphasis on the role of the National Intelligence Service in Korean politics. Essentially the Korean CIA, the NIS was closely linked to Korea's authoritarian leaders in the 1970s and 80s and has admitted to employing underhanded tactics to torpedo the election campaigns of progressive political figures as recently as 2012.
While peripheral figures from both governments try to twist situations and public sentiment to their advantage, the two men at the center of this story slowly become idealists as they come to appreciate the value of the Koreas working in tandem, which leads them to lose faith in the value of their reactionary superiors. Both men start as pragmatists and while they remain so till the very end, lead actors Hwang Jung-min and Lee Sung-min allow us to bear witness to their burgeoning empathy and their mutual appreciation of one another.
A box office magnet known for Ode to My Father, Veteran and many other hits, Hwang is on top form as Seok-yeong, effortlessly switching between the keen eyes of the covert agent codenamed 'Black Venus' and his disarming, ever-smiling businessman cover. Another popular everyman, Lee takes on a greater transformation as Myung-woon. Ever in control and always analyzing the situation at hand, Lee excels as the intelligent official, while also allowing his humanity to come through. Lee will be doing battle with himself on the charts this week as his new thriller The Witness bows just a week after The Spy Gone North.
Speaking of performing double duty this summer, Ju Ji-hoon, one of the leads of the summer smash Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, is effectively cold and cool as the security agent that Seok-yeong must watch out for. Meanwhile, Cho Jin-woong, fresh from the success of Lee Hae-young's Drug War remake Believer, which was actually shot later than this film, is suitably ambiguous as Seok-yeong's NIS handler.
I would be remiss not to mention a memorable cameo by Ki Joo-bong, who just earned the Best Actor prize from the Locarno International Film Festival for his role in Hong Sangsoo's Hotel by the River, who exudes gravitas and an altogether strange magnetism as Kim Jong-il.
On the way to a rousing and beautiful orchestrated climax, The Spy Gone North occasionally gets mired in its byzantine backroom dealings. While it bravely eschews any kind of action, perhaps a little more tension could have helped pull together the film's narrative intentions, which become murky in the midsection of this lengthy drama.
That said, The Spy Gone North is a welcome change of pace for the Korean spy genre - a balanced and hard-hitting political tale, calling to mind Jang Joon-hwan's excellent protest drama 1987: When the Day Comes, released just this past winter. It is also an excellent showcase for its talented cast and production staff, which includes a weighty score from Cho Young-wook, and wonderful coordination between cinematographer Choi Chang-min's deep compositions, Yoo Seok-moon's layered lighting and Park Il-hyeon's earthy period production design. Just don't go in expecting any fireworks.