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Spy Gone North, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The unglamorous, corrupt, but often fascinating side of espionage."
3 stars

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.

It works in large part because Hwang Jung-min is giving a terrific performance as Suk-young that in some ways inverts a fair number of spy-movie expectations: The scenes where he is presumably himself show him as a blandly professional cipher, aware of his duty but with little personality, the abstract extension of the nation's intelligence services as anonymous extensions of the country's will. To do that, he becomes this disgraced hustler, and that version of Suk-young is a delight - an outward screw-up, gregarious in the most loud and obnoxious way, not blending in at all. Hwang does a fantastic job of quickly shifting gears when necessary, or letting the audience see him thinking on his feet even while the North Koreans have to see him flailing. He delivers some of his strongest work toward the end, when Suk-young realizes he can no longer simply be a tool or play the fool.

He's naturally got the best role, although even the guys with much less to do tend to do it well. It starts with Cho Jin-woong's clipped professionalism as Suk-young's very professional handler, good for a slightly sharper representation of the NIS early on and a murkier take on that later; in between, Lee Sung-min is doing a fine job of representing the conflicted humanity of a man born into the cult of Kim Il-sung but having clear views of what both his country and the outside world look like. Ju Ji-hoon and Park Sung-woong mostly deliver what's expected as a DPRK enforcer and a useful pawn, but there's something low-key terrific about Gu Ju-bong's portrayal of Kim Jong-il - without being the caricature that man can easily become, Gu and the filmmakers capture both how bizarre a figure he was and how dangerous someone so able to take his position and power for granted can be.

As important as finding out how much progress is being made at Yongbyon is, the film sidelines it toward the end, but that works because Yoon and company are very aware of what they're doing and have a point to it. Maybe, if I knew recent South Korean history and politics better, I'd have seen what wound up grabbing me in the last act coming, but I didn't, so this shift in the story was kind of fascinating to me even beyond being a well-highlighted switch from the cynical realpolitik of international relations to the domestic variety. You've been enjoying the secretive manipulations used against the North, it says, but what about the same people doing the same thing here at home? The filmmakers balances it with a quiet righteousness, not preaching but certainly interrogating the questionable ethics that exist on both sides of the Korean border and tangling them up, highlighting just how high preserving the status quo is to those in power.

Even with that strong last act, The Spy Gone North is still often a movie that exists on the line between cool and chilly, all too often stretched a bit and willing to drown in detail. But it's also occasionally exceptionally striking, especially in how it portrays the North, using seamless effects to render it in great detail and highlight both the Kims' omnipresence and how tyrants use scale to intimidate, saving its close-up look at the people suffering outside of Pyongyang for one incredibly strong sequence that becomes more horrific the closer one looks at it.

The good parts of "The Spy Gone North" are good enough that I don't doubt that, when Yoon has another film make it to the festival circuit or North American theaters in a few years, I'll likely remember them first and be surprised to re-read this and remember that the movie also had me fidgeting and wanting more (or less) for a fair amount of its running time. Making that sort of impression isn't a bad skill for a filmmaker to have, especially when what he's making is already pretty good on most counts.

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originally posted: 08/19/18 04:18:47
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Directed by
  Jong-bin Yun

Written by
  Jong-bin Yun
  Seong-hwi Kwon

  Jung-Min Hwang
  Sung-min Lee
  Jin-woong Cho
  Ji-Hoon Ju

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