(Screened at the 2013 London Korean Film Festival.)
One of the biggest Korean films of the year arrives in the form of “Secretly, Greatly”, a spy blockbuster that mixes comedy, thrills and tragedy to entertaining effect. Based on the hugely popular webtoon series “Covertness” by Hun, the film was perhaps surprisingly directed by Jang Cheol Su, best known for the 2010 ultra-dark revenge horror “Bedevilled”. The main draw here is definitely the cast, the film being headlined by three of the country’s biggest up and coming stars, namely actors Kim Soo Hyun (“The Thieves”), Lee Hyun Woo (“To the Beautiful You”) and Park Ki Woong (“War of the Arrows”), playing a trio of young North Korean spies infiltrating a quiet suburb in the south. The film proved a massive hit at the box office, opening with Korea’s first day box office record, and going on to pull in nearly nine million admissions overall.
The film opens with Kim Soo Hyun as North Korean spy Won Ryu Hwan, a member of the elite 5446 Corps, being sent on a top secret mission to the South. Despite being trained to kill, he ends up forced to play the part of local idiot Dong Gu in a quiet neighbourhood, his daily routine revolving around working in a corner store, falling down, allowing himself to be bullied by kids, and generally making a fool of himself. Wondering whether he has been abandoned by his country, after two years undercover he is surprised by the arrival of two more agents, Lee Hae Rang (Park Ki Woong), impersonating a rocker despite being unable to play the guitar, and his former 5446 junior Ri Hae Jin (Lee Hyun Woo). Inevitably, the three gradually get used to their new lives in the south, though just when they find themselves becoming comfortable, shocking orders arrive from the north, enforced by their ruthless former training officer, Colonel Kim Tae Won (Son Hyun Ju, “Hide and Seek”).
It’s easy to see why “Secretly, Greatly” was such a commercial success, as it covers a great many bases across a variety of genres, starting off as a comedy, working in spy suspense and slowly building the tension, before exploding into action and melodrama. Though this kind of kitchen sink approach in itself isn’t anything new for Korean films, Jang Cheol Su does a far better and more coherent job than most, and the shifts in tone feel natural and believable, despite the overall daftness of the plot. Combining laughs, drama and gritty violence is no mean feat, though Jang succeeds admirably, and the film is both genuinely funny during its open stages, with plenty of creative slapstick humour and wacky touches, and surprisingly dark and bitter as it nears its conclusion.
The main reason it works so well is simple, being due to the fact that Jang pays a great deal of attention to character, with a real effort made to flesh out the three spies as likeable young men. At the same time as playing their roles and the many indignities they suffer for gags, the film quite cleverly and effectively adds depth to their personalities and their relationships, meaning that the viewer is subtly pulled into their story. It’s rare to come across character writing with any kind of substance in most blockbusters, and the film is all the more rewarding for it, becoming surprisingly emotional and tough to watch as it gets darker.
Jang’s direction fits the material, and though his approach is less grounded and edgy than in “Bedevilled”, he’s a helmer with a real talent for keeping the viewer engaged and guessing. The film’s look varies from a bright, small-town nostalgia type feel during the first act to the gloomy rain and greyness of the finale, and though scarcely innovative, the visuals are generally effective. The same is true of the action choreography, with the broad physical comedy (including lots of Kim Soo Hyun falling down stairs) and fist fights being enjoyable and well put together. Most importantly, Jang gets great performances from his leads, and the film is definitely at its best when the three are on screen together, sharing a seemingly effortless and very entertaining chemistry. Kim is arguably the most impressive, putting in an excellent and highly charismatic turn as Won, shifting from bumbling fool to ruthless and intense agent without ever missing a beat or losing the audience. Though Lee Hyun Woo and Park Ki Woong don’t have quite so much to do and often seem to be there mainly as his supporting foils, both acquit themselves very well, and have their fair share of alternately fun and moving moments.
“Secretly, Greatly” is thankfully more than just a showcase for the talents of the good-looking trio, and delivers a wining blend of action and comedy without losing sight of its heart. Though a very different proposition to his superb debut, Jang’s sophomore outing is a great deal of fun to watch, and is considerably more accomplished than the majority of other recent Korean blockbusters.
Chul-soo Jang (director) / Yoon Hong-gi, Chul-soo Jang (screenplay)
CAST: Park Hye-Sook … Jeon Soon-im
Park Ki-Woong … Ri Hae-rang
Soo Hyun Kim … Won Ryoo-hwan
Gi-woong Park … Ri Hae-rang
Hye-soo Park … Jeon Soon-im
Hyeon-joo Son … Ri Hae-jin