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Secretly Greatly

Dir: Jang Cheol-soo. South Korea. 2013. 123mins

Director Jang Cheol-soo’s second hotly-anticipated spy feature has relatively little in common with his widely acclaimed debut Bedevilled (2010), but contains many of the ingredients for it to perform well locally as illustrated with its impressive opening weekend box office figures where it broke a number of records for a local film in the Korean box office. International audiences, however, seeking a repeat of the revenge-thriller that brought Jang into the spotlight are likely to be disappointed given its commercial focus, while those after a spy-thriller like Shiri (1999) or The Berlin File (2012) will probably feel the same way.

This is no spy action thriller in the same way Shiri or The Berlin File is. Rather, it’s an attempt to blend comedy with action and drama elements.

Opening on the June 5 in its home market of South Korea, it has already generated $22.4 million, thus far sailing past three million admissions in just five days, which no other local film has ever achieved. It has also broken the record for the biggest opening weekend for a local film in terms of the number of tickets sold amassing just over two millionadmissions ($13 million) over the three-day period, marking a return to the dominance of local films after a surge from Hollywood in April and May.

Its phenomenal success can be attributed to the popularity of the 2010 internet comic series on which the film is based on - which has received over 40 million page hits online - together with the star power of local icon Kim Soo-hyun (from 2012’s The Thieves) who plays the lead in the film.

The film follows three young and highly trained North Korean agents who are sent to work undercover in the South, but their loyalties are tested when an order from the North finally comes through.

For most of the first hour, the film follows these three agents, especially the leading character, Won Ryu-hwan (played by Kim Soo-hyun) whom arrives in the South first, workingundercover through their newly assumed identities, but leaves little room for a build up of tension that director Jang so wonderfully orchestrated in Bedevilled.

Instead, the film focuses on the more comedic elements of the story that international audiences might find baffling - not least when Won Ryu-hwan suddenly switches between his cover as a young man suffering from learning difficulties to his true identity as an eliteNorth Korean spy.

In this sense, this is no spy action thriller in the same way Shiri or The Berlin File is. Rather, it’s an attempt to blend comedy with action and drama elements, but ultimately, there is nothing tying it together, except for the webcomic itself, which international audiences are mostly unaware of. 

The film does finally kick into gear towards the film’s conclusion as Jang intensifies the pacing when the command from the north comes through, but for many viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the original webcomic, this is likely to be too late.

Kim Soo-hyeon meanwhile is adequate as the village idiot while the other two young spies played by Park Ki-woong as a rock musician and Lee Hyun-woo as a student give satisfactory performances, but neither is able to leave a lasting impression.

Nevertheless, despite its many flaws, Jang who is a former protégé of Kim Ki-duk remains the film’s key selling point on the international marketfollowing the critical success of Bedevilled that premiered in the International Critics’ week in Cannes in 2010. Kim Soo-hyun’s star presence meanwhile together with the increasingly popular Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo should also attract interest in Asian territories.

Production Company: MCMC

International Sales: Showbox/Mediaplex, www.showbox.co.kr

Producer: Kim Yung-min

Screenplay: Kim Bang-hyun, Yun Hong-gi

Cinematography: Choi Sang-ho

Editor: Kim Sun-min

Music:  Jang Young-gyu, Dal Pa-ran

Main Cast: Kim Soo-hyun, Park Ki-woong, Lee Hyun-woo, Lee Chae-young, Son Hyun-ju, Kim Sung-kyun

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