The Spy Gone North (2018, Korea)

It is a tradition, over the past few years, for us to head down to Buena Park early on the eve we go to Knott’s Halloween Haunt so that we can get there in plenty of time and not have the evening jeopardized by a terrible traffic jam, and also have a little time to chill before going in to dinner. It started when we stayed at the hotel and has continued on even in the past few years that we’ve realized it’s actually far more restful to drive home that night than try to sleep in a weird place. But it is only this year that I realized that our second favorite movie chain, the CGV, has an outlet walking distance from Knott’s. The CGV has only two theaters in the United States (if not the world), and the other one is, yes, in Koreatown and is where we go see our Korean double- and triple-features.

When you say to an American the title “The Spy Gone North”, you get a kind of puzzled reaction. “Like…to Canada?” And then you point out that that’s the title of a Korean movie, and there tends to be a beat, then a sudden realization. “Oh, wow…”

Unification?
South Meets North in the stinger.

In this story, a patriotic Korean destroys his career and reputation to create a believable front as someone who might be open to North Korean overtures. He runs around Peking making a lot of noise and always talking about big scores until he’s approached by North Korean agents. He worms his way in to their good graces but this ultimately leads to some harrowing events, most notably, an invitation to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il’s palace. Kim Jong’s palace where, apparently, it’s standard practice to drug and interrogate all new visitors.

Meanwhile, back in South Korea, the anti-communist forces are busily arranging elections, and we learn that there always seem to be suspicious attacks by North Korean whenever they’re anti-communist forces are in danger of losing an election. Most of the story, in fact, takes place in the months leading up to an election that our hero spy’s bosses are potentially losing. They’re greatly concerned that the more progressive leader—whom they’ve framed as being a communist sympathizer—will disband their intelligence agency.

Over a hot glass of kimchi.
I like to make all my deals in dimly lit rooms with maps and rows of files.

Our hero, and a similar character on the northern side of the border, are working very hard to bring about a reconciliation—but of course, that’s really going to put the intelligence agency out of business. Ultimately, a great sacrifice is called for, and the question only remains of who is going to make it.

It’s quite good. The only thing I noticed as being somewhat lacking is that we never see our hero spy (Jung-min Hwang, The Wailing) outside of his job, so we never get the sense of what he has to lose back at home. We don’t see his family’s reaction to his sudden loss of face or how he deals with that. For all that, his story remains moving. We get more of his North Korean counterpart’s family life (Sung-min Lee) which is effective because he’s constantly dealing with the secret police.

There's some difference between north and south.
“You like kimchi? I like kimchi! You like concentration camps…?”

There are a lot of other interesting things, such as there being a scandal because North Korean products being sent to South Korea actually being just re-branded Chinese and Japanese goods—because of course NoKo can’t export anything. There’s a nice touch where, when pulling up to Kim Jong Il’s palace, the use the “Dies Irae”, a chant best known for being the theme to The Shining. Ji-Hoon Ju of the Along With Gods movies has a prominent role as the top spy who constantly tries to undermine Sung-min Lee’s character.

I was proud of myself, because all the time Kim Jong-Il was on screen, I never once started singing “I’m so…ronery…!”

Interestingly enough, we saw this on the day the North Korean and South Korean leaders met in Pyonyang, for the first time in over 60 years.

Or is it all propaganda?
Apparently there’s some poverty in North Korea.

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