THE SPY GONE NORTH (2018)
Slick spy thriller offers tension-filled view of North-South nuclear tensions during the 1990s
While many spy films focus on distance past conflicts and tensions, Korea has plenty of material from more recent decades to call upon in its fractious relationship.
One such period from the not-too-distance past is the North-South relations of the 1990s, where tight elections in the South took place as it continued to sweat over the nuclear weapon developments of its neighbours to the north.
Director Yoon Jong-bin landed his second trip to Cannes Festival with this outing as an out of competition screening, following up on his 2005 debut The Unforgiven which competed in the festival’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ section.
The most remarkable achievement of The Spy Gone North is how it manages to be so deeply engaging over two hours and 17 minutes while utilising almost no action or violence. It is a testimony to the power of the script, the on-screen performances and direction that makes this possible.
It is loosely based on the true story of Park Chae-seo, a former South Korean agent who infiltrated the North’s nuclear facilities. Set in 1993, National Intelligence Service agent Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min) is sent to Beijing to infiltrate a group of North Korean officials.
Codenamed Black Venus, his goal is to obtain information on the progress of the North Korean nuclear programme, and he sets himself up as a businessman from the south with ambitions to shoot an advertising campaign in the northern lands.
The ruse takes him to the very top of the North Korean administration, triggering a somewhat amusing appearance from Kim Jong-Il, the former diminutive dictator of the hermit state.
The film first rattles along at a frenetic pace befitting the spy genre before sliding into increased tension and eventually pulling on the emotional strings of the friendships and families split by the North-South divide.
A regular feature throughout is the close calls. On seemingly countless occasions it appears the gig is up for Seok-young as his northern host's suspicions seems set to be realised, only for a narrow escape to keep his façade running to the next scene at least.
Much of Seok-young's cover is his ability to flip from surly spy to overenthusiastic businessman with interest only in the US dollars he can make with the North.
No punches are pulled on the portrayal of life in North Korea, which is ultra-bleak, especially in one scene where we watch children eat from rubbish tips.
Despite this, there is genuine heart and perhaps even hope within the frames of the film. An acknowledgment that the difference between the North and South is not so great that powerful and meaningful human connections cannot still be made.
This well-crafted spy romp maintains an entertaining and fulfilling pace throughout and is another piece of work which speaks to Director Yoon’s broad and varied talent for film craft.