Film Review: The Spy Gone North

A compelling spy epic, also educational to Westerners in its delineation of the eternal North and South Korea divide.
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Timeless and timely, writer-director Yoon Jong-bin’s theme in The Spy Gone North is the ever-tenuous reationship between North and South Korea. He sets his basic plot in 1993, mostly in Pyongyang, Korea and Beijing, centering it on Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min), a former South Korean army officer who is chosen by the National Intelligence Service to become a spy in the North. Objective: to discover and disseminate that country’s suspected nuclear program. He poses as a businessman out to gain money and government support for South Korean-produced products.

This intelligently substantial espionage film, loosely based on the true story of Park Chae-seo, a former South Korean agent who infiltrated North Korea's nuclear facilities, is truly the anti-Bond or Mission: Impossible, substituting real-life suspense and perhaps a surfeit of dialogue for thrill-packed action sequences. Yoon’s direction is smoothly professional and psychologically keen, training on the human toll his characters endure from all the endless big-interest intrigue. Park strikes up a relationship with North Korean power broker Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min), taking him to the highest echelons of power, including a meeting with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il (Gi Ju-bong), who gives him the green light. The shifting kinship between the two men forms the emotional heart here and, in its ever-Korean stoic, macho way, is quite affecting. Cho Young-wuk’s portentous music score furthers the film’s spiritual resemblance to John Frankenheimer’s big, impressive 1960s political thrillers like Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate.

The skilled cast performs efficiently, with Gi a standout, a pug-nosed and permanent-waved dead ringer for the deceased “Dear Leader,” father of Korea’s current dictator and infamous human-rights stomper. Stout, entitled and caressing a white Pekinese, he amusingly recalls every Bond villain Mike Myers ever caricatured.