Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Spy Gone North

That first paragraph of the review below is absolutely true - every time I see that there's something out of the ordinary playing locally, I'll look up who's involved, see what else they've done to see just how must-see the new thing is and adjust priorities accordingly. In this case, I saw Nameless Gangster, remembered seeing that, and perked up, only to be surprised that I apparently hadn't loved the movie when I saw it. I wonder if I just absorbed its generally-good reputation, or if it's just got a great name.

I do like this one, though, even if I was kind of worn out by the end; as with a lot of South Korean movies, you could probably lose twenty minutes, and it didn't help that I had just done some birthday shopping for one of the awesome nieces that had me dragging a too-large item from the Museum of Science gift shop in sweaty weather beforehand after getting a bit turned-around on the way. Weird, though, getting out of what feels like an early-evening show that's only kind of long to find things already shutting down.

If nothing else, though, it was a kind of interesting take on North Korea from a South Korean perspective that doesn't make that nation either terrifying or ridiculous. One thing that struck me were the fairly small monetary stakes bandied about when trying to get leverage on the country and even Kim in particular, and it gets to the heart of North Korea's horrific absurdity in a way that doesn't necessarily rely on leaving the unstable Kim dynasty front and center - it's a desperately poor country that that continues as it is seemingly out of pure defiance, racking up a horrific body count on the way, and too many people on both sides of the people (whether their own leadership or that of the South) profit too much from that situation.

Which is more than a lot of other kind of messy movies manage. It's kind of a shame that the Asian movies playing Boston Common got nailed by some really weird times this week (in part, admittedly, because of Crazy Rich Asians. This stuff may be imperfect, but it's at least interesting.

Gongjak (The Spy Gone North)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2018 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

A funny thing happened on the way to The Spy Gone North; I looked over my previous reviews of director Yoon Jong-bin's films and realized that, despite the good reputations attached to their names, I'd thought they were just okay at the time rather than particularly great movies, and it soon seemed that this one was settling into the same space - interesting material, clear and methodical telling, not-quite-dry results. It takes an interesting turn toward the end, though, in the same way that something begun with one intention can often take on a life of its own.

It starts in the early 1990s, when the Cold War was coming to an end in most of the world but intensifying on the Korean peninsula as the North is getting closer to refining plutonium at its Yongbyon reactor. The National Intelligence Service recruits Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) to make contact with a nuclear physicist working on the project, but that only gets them limited information, so he's soon got a much more ambitious mission: Travel to Beijing representing an import/export front company to try and do some business with Ri Myung-un (Lee Sing-min) of the North's External Economic Commission, and from there try to work his way into the Pyongyang elite, finding a way to get close enough to Yongbyon for operatives to smuggle something out..

Those that enjoy the un-Bond-like nuts and bolts of spy work will find plenty of it here, as Suk-young diligently ruins his own life to establish a cover and then spends months working to make contact with Myung-un rather than having some useful and eccentric supporting character instantly backfill it. The actual work of surveillance and counter-surveillance is presented in detailed fashion that highlights how workmanlike it can be, and when he does find a path to Pyongyang, it's kind of absurd and involves hijacking someone else's work. It is in many ways, about relentlessly staying the course and finding ways to present oneself as harmless to thoroughly paranoid people. Yoon and co-writer Kwon Sung-whee do well to keep this part of the film moving despite the very incremental progress being made and the way that so many of the figures Suk-young encounters are spy-movie staples, behaving exactly as expected without a lot of surprises in store.

Full review at EFC.

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