A South Korean agent must infiltrate 1990s North Korea in Yoon Jong-bin’s spy thriller

The Spy Gone North

Source: Cannes Film Festival

The Spy Gone North

Dir: Yoon Jong-bin. Republic Of Korea. 2017. 140mins

A film about stellar spycraft that’s been made with comparable steely intelligence, The Spy Gone North (Gongjak) boasts little action but compensates with director Yoon Jong-bin’s considerable ability to weave suspense while depicting the subtle manoeuvrings of a fraught covert operation. Fictionalizing the real-life exploits of a South Korean agent known as Black Venus, who in the 1990s was tasked with infiltrating North Korea’s government, this thriller rewards patience over its 140-minute running time, giving the viewer a sure sense of the stakes and the individuals at the heart of a high-stakes mission.

 One of Spy’s unanticipated pleasures is its ability to wring drama out of the minutia involved 

Screening out of competition in Cannes, Spy doesn’t have the pyrotechnics of the James Bond or Jason Bourne franchises, but fans of smart, engrossing espionage thrillers will surely come calling.

As the film begins, a former military officer named Park (Hwang Jung-Min) is tapped by South Korea’s intelligence agency NIS to go undercover, posing as a businessman to meet with Ri (Lee Sung-min), a North Korean official with connections to the communist government. Park’s mission is to use Ri to determine if Kim Jong-il has developed nuclear weapons and is an imminent threat.

Spy features no shootouts or car chases, instead meticulously following Park as he finagles his way into North Korea’s inner circle. The screenplay, which Yoon (Kundo) co-wrote with Kwon Sung-hui, spends considerable time establishing and developing Park’s cover story — he wants to produce South Korean commercials inside North Korea — and one of Spy’s unanticipated pleasures is its ability to wring drama out of the minutia involved in what might seem like an esoteric business deal.

But that’s only one element to which Yoon devotes his attention. Spanning roughly a decade, the film examines the two nations’ tense relationship, illustrating how each plot twist could affect both countries. Sometimes, this macro view makes it harder for the filmmaker to invest as deeply in the characters, who are vivid without always being particularly nuanced. Yet this strategy seems to be in keeping with Yoon’s overall thesis, which is that these individuals are enmeshed in something much larger than themselves.

Hwang brings a stoic resolve to Park, although it’s one of the movie’s funnier running jokes that, in his undercover businessman guise, he comes across as an amiable goofball, presumably to divert suspicion. As the stern Ri, Lee ends up having the more poignant arc. This serenely confident power player slowly reveals a softer side, especially when confronting poverty and starvation in his homeland. And Ju Ji-hoon proves to be a suitably menacing North Korean security officer who doesn’t trust Park, leaving the two men at constant odds.

Editors Kim Sang-Bum and Kim Jae-Bum deserve special kudos for maintaining a sober, stately pace throughout the film’s protracted running time. Cho Young-wuk’s suspenseful score underlines but never overshadows the tense proceedings, while cinematographer Choi Chan-Min adds a dynamism to intimate scenes in which two or three characters are simply sitting and talking. In The Spy Gone North, words hit harder than bullets, all leading to an unexpectedly moving finale in which no dialogue is spoken.

Production companies: CJ Entertainment, Moonlight Film, Sanai Pictures

International sales: CJ Entertainment, filmsales@cj.net      

Producers: Han Jae-duk, Son Sang-bum, Kuk Su-ran

Screenplay: Kwon Sung-hui, Yoon Jong-bin

Production design: Park Elhen

Editing: Kim Sang-Bum, Kim Jae-Bum

Cinematography: Choi Chan Min

Music: Cho Young-wuk

Cast: Hwang Jung-Min, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ju Ji-hoo