The Korean divide rears its head again in “The Spies”, following a gang of agents from the North who find themselves reluctantly reactivated after spending most of their lives in the South. The film sees writer director Woo Min Ho working again with acclaimed actor Kim Myung Min (who won plaudits in 2009 for his amazing turn in “Closer to Heaven” as a man struggling with Lou Gehrig’s disease), following their harrowing “Man of Vendetta” with a somewhat lighter ensemble piece. The film’s supporting cast are of a similarly high calibre, with Yeom Jung Ah (“The Old Garden”), television actor Jung Gyu Woon (“History of the Salaryman”), Yu Hae Jin (“Miss Conspirator”) and Byun Hee Bong (“The Host”), joining Kim as the spies caught firmly between a rock and a hard place.
Kim Myung Min plays Kim, who along with single mother Kang (Yeom Jung Ah), activist farmer Woo (Jung Gyu Woon) and the elderly Yoon (Byun Hee Bong), are a group of North Korean spies who have been lurking in the South for over 20 years, and are now very much accustomed to life there. Making a living of sorts selling Chinese Viagra pills, Kim is far more concerned with supporting his wife and children than awaiting a mission, and so is understandably shocked when his boss Choi (Yu Hae Jin) appears with orders to reform the unit and assassinate a defecting politician. Forced back into action by the ruthless and murderous Choi, the four spies hatch a scheme to make some money on the side, at the same time hoping to get out of the game for good and to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Ensemble affairs continue to be popular in Korean cinema, perhaps not surprisingly since the country has such a wealth of excellent character actors, and one of the neat things about “The Spies” is the way in which its players work and interact together. Although it might have been expected that a dramatic heavy-hitter like Kim Myung Min would have dominated, the characters all get a decent amount of screen time, and Woo Min Ho does a great job of giving them all a little more depth than usual, which helps involve the viewer in their story all the more. While there’s nothing terribly new here, Woo falling back on expected interrelationships between the group, such as a dark history between Kim and Choi, and a past romance between Kang and Woo, this all works very well, and the film benefits from a solid emotional grounding. The cast are all on fine form here, not only Kim, but Yeom, Jung and Byun putting in affecting turns as his fellow spies, and Yu Hae Jin coming across as genuinely cold and unpleasant in the scheming villainous role.
The plot is also pretty well-told, successfully combining its heist and espionage themes to occasionally gripping effect, and though it does go off a little too often into domestic or melodramatic tangents, the film holds the interest throughout. Woo wins extra points for a few surprises along the way, some of which are pleasingly mean-spirited, and though the final outcome is fairly foreseeable, the film generally makes for a tense ride. This is in part due to Woo throwing in a good number of action scenes and nicely planned set pieces, and wisely the film doesn’t bank everything on either the assassination attempt or the robbery, allowing plenty to go wrong along the way. The film also gets surprisingly violent and bloody at times, quite at odds with some earlier scenes that suggest it might be going down a more comic route, and though it’d be going too far to call it dark, it certainly has an enjoyably hard edge.
“The Spies” definitely has a lot to offer, and is one of the better Korean thrillers of the year so far. Although it’s only his second film, Woo Min Ho is already proving himself a talent worth watching, especially when blessed with as fine a cast as he has to work with here.
Woo Min-ho (director) / Woo Min-ho(screenplay)
CAST: Kim Myeong-min