The Spy Gone North (Gongjak)

Korea (2018) Dir. Yoon Jong-bin

North vs. South has been a long-standing basis for a feuds in numerous countries across history (except in Germany where it was East vs. West because they had to be different) but one of the longest running would be that in bifurcated Korea.

In 1993, reports emerged suggesting North Korea had developed an arsenal of nuclear weapons, forcing the South Korean government to seek confirmation by sending a spy into the North to suss out the truth. The NIS recruit former military man Park Suk-Young (Hwang Jung-Min) for the job, sending him to Beijing to meet with top ranking officials from the North under the guise of a salesman brokering business deals with them.

Given the codename “Black Venus”, Park meets Ri Myung-Un (Lee Sung-Min) and quickly gains his trust but raises the suspicion of State Security Section Chief Jung Moo-Taek (Ju Ji-Hoon). Having made a favourable impression with his attractive deals and palm greasing gifts of Rolex watches, Ri arranges a meeting between Park and North leader Kim Jong-Il (Ki Joo-Bong) in Pyongyang, but first Park has to pass the distrusting Jung’s official security clearance procedure.

The Spy Gone North may have all the hallmarks of a cinematic tense spy thriller but is in fact based on real events, naturally dramatised here with altered names to protect the innocent, and, of course, the guilty. It reads like one of those situations that are too far fetched to be true but life can throw up some startling surprises in that way – lest we forget we are also dealing with Kim Jong-Il who wasn’t the most reasonable person in politics.

More shocking than this being based on reality is the outcome of the story for the real Black Venus, Park Chae-Seo, revealed during the post credits which show nobody can be trusted when it comes to politics and the national interest. Having seen everything Park did, under orders, his “rewards” are very unjust not to mention ungrateful but some skins are clearly worth saving more than others, especially if they have some power.

As thrilling is the story becomes with its twists, turns, and power shifts, the opening half is rather slow as it introduces the characters, lays the foundation for Park’s infiltration into Ri’s good books, and establishes the extent of the charade Park has to adhere to in order to avoid being discovered. This means a lot of chat, some fancy dining, and secret meetings on both sides which hardly sounds like compelling viewing.

But it is necessary in delineating the differing attitudes of the two countries via these characters – Park is all smiles, jokes, and quick-witted patois whilst Ri and Jung are stoic, clinical, and indoctrinated in their cynicism towards the capitalist South. Yet, there is an obvious paradox with the Communist North wanting to make money, especially with the South but after becoming almost bankrupt after a bad deal with China, they need money ASAP.

Park is smart however, coming up with a doozy of a plan once the initial ideas of selling Northern antiques in the South (as they are fake) falls through, which appeals to the vanity of film lover Kim Jong-Il and allows him to continue his propaganda in favour of the North and against the South. The proposal is that Kim allows commercials for products from the South are filmed in his land, showing off the glamorous landscapes to let the world know the North is a great place to live despite reports to the contrary.

Kim Jong-Il is portrayed as every dictator should be – terrifying despite his diminutive stature yet an object of awe and inspiration to his loyal zealots, which is arguably more terrifying given the comedy of his physical appearance. But for someone so smart, he is easily played when the right buttons are pushed and Park plays him like a fiddle, and with Kim’s blessing, he can now roam the country to find proof of nuclear weapons.

Everything seems to be running like clockwork, and Park even makes a friend in Ri, who secretly shares some of Park’s benevolent outlook regarding the poverty and gross mistreatment of the people in the North. But a spanner is about to drop into the works as an election in the South is likely to bring about changes many people don’t want, thus interference is the only way to ensure the status quo remains.

There is a lot going on in this film which requires patience and steely attention paid by the audience to keep up with it. By the third act, the lines of loyalty are all but eroded as personal gain trumps political and social prosperity and Park is caught in the middle of it, desperate to keep his head off the chopping block. Tension and suspense in the tradition of the spy thriller genre finally arrives with this twist, the journey to the conclusion being as clear as mud as it should be.

Yoon Jong-bin has a hard task in keeping us invested in this sprawling tale without the genre staples of a car chase or a violent shoot out, the weapons of choice instead being wits, guile, and bravery. Admittedly, it takes a while to get warmed up but the gorgeous cinematography and engaging performances compensate for the initially awkward pacing and slightly bloated plot.

Hwang Jung-Min has recently proven to be one of the most reliable and bankable actors in Korea as evident by his superb, almost one-man show like turn as Park, drawing on his comedic and dramatic strengths. Able support comes from Lee Sung-Min as Ri and the chillingly accurate (by our knowledge at least) portrayal of Kim Jong-Il by Ki Joo-Bong.

With relations between North and South Korea currently at their best yet, The Spy Gone North is likely to be a sour and maybe even poignant nostalgia trip for native audiences whilst serving as a highly insightful and fascinating spy drama for international markets to enjoy.