The words “double agent” and “espionage” conjure up exciting images, especially when being used to describe a movie. It’s sad that this Korean import doesn’t live up to those expectations. By choosing to focus more on narrative and the psyches of the characters instead of action, it makes for a rather unexciting viewing.
Centering on North Korean diplomat Lim Byun-Ho (Suk-kyu Han), the movie shows his perilous escape to the Western side of Berlin during the Cold War. But his problems are just beginning, as he is graphically tortured by intelligence officers to see if he is actually a double agent sent to spy on them. It turns out he is just that, and after he is released he starts a new life; the dangerous and at times desperate life of an agent operating deep within enemy territory.
Despite a promising premise, the film’s execution is problematic and pedestrian. While the concept of poor relations between North and South Korea is still relevant today, the Cold War aspects date the film to an era few clearly remember or are familiar with. It makes “Comrade” less accessible, as well as feeling like a period piece made too long after the period was over. Director Hyeon-jeong Kim’s decision to ditch action in favor of realism and characters also hampers the film. His directorial style is unimpressive, and contributes little in terms of visuals to the tale. Clocking in at nearly two hours, “Comrade” is slow and feels overlong. It is impressive that the director would try to tackle the daunting task of making a spy film with low action and gadget-free, but a two hour character study only tests the audience’s patience and causes attentions to wander.
“Comrade” is not without its bright spots, however, especially Han Suk-kyu (“Shiri”) as the central character. He does a tremendous job of portraying his character as a real person, with internal conflicts, fears, loyalties and actual emotional responses. Although essentially an anti-hero because of his profession, the actor’s portrayal manages to elicit a sympathetic response to the character and his plight. Surprisingly, we become concerned for his welfare during the course of this dull film, and can almost forgive the fact that he is working as a traitor to the country he lives in. Han Suk-kyu’s performance is especially good during the brutal torture scenes; he truly seems like a man in agony and afraid for his well-being. This becomes doubly impressive when it’s revealed that he is, in fact, a double agent, and he managed to keep this secret despite the atrocities inflicted upon him.
As Yun Sun-mi, a radio show hostess and fellow spy, actress So-young Ko (“A Day”) is also good, but can be frequently overshadowed by the presence of the lead actor. Still, she does manage to convincing portray another person whose life is essentially one long role play, and the difficulties and stresses it can cause. The finale is also impressive: a beautifully poetic shot that is sure to elicit an emotional response from even the most hardened viewer. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t as effective.
Those interested in espionage history or drawn out character studies will find “Comrade” to their liking. Its focus on loyalty to your country, extreme personal sacrifice, commitment to duty, and the effects those values have on a man in extreme circumstances will be fascinating. Everyone else looking for entertainment and excitement should skip this monotonous film.
Hyeon-jeong Kim (director)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han …. Lim, Byeong-ho
So-young Ko …. Yun, Su-mi
Ho-jin Jeon …. Baek, Seung-cheol