Korean espionage action comedy “The Spy: Undercover Operation” had a pretty interesting trip to the screen, having originally been set to be directed by Lee Myung Se, known for arty outings like “Duelist” and “Nowhere to Hide”, for blockbuster producer Yoon Je Kyun, the man behind hits “Haeundae”, “Sector 7” and others. However, Lee and Yoon clashed over the film’s (then going by “Mr K”) direction, the former apparently taking things off at a more esoteric tangent, and the director left the project while in the middle of shooting in Thailand. The reins were handed to first time helmer Yi Seung Jun, who had worked for Yoon several times as assistant director and who got things back on a more commercially friendly track.
The film stars actor Sol Kyung Gu (“Cold Eyes”) as Chul Soo, an average businessman who’s actually one of the country’s top spies, a fact he keeps hidden from his long suffering flight attendant wife Young Hee (Moon So Ri, “An Ethics Lesson”). After a sinister plot threatens to engulf the Korean peninsula in war, Chul Soo is sent to Thailand to try and track down a missing North Korean nuclear scientist (actress Han Ye Ri, “South Bound”), only to find Young Hee also in Bangkok and being wooed by a suave stranger called Ryan (Daniel Henney, Korean/American actor model, “One Night Surprise”), who just happens to be an enemy agent. Poor Chul Soo tries to save the country from disaster, while keeping Young Hee out of Ryan’s clutches, which, needless to say soon proves even more complicated than expected.
The whole married spy deceiving his wife plot of “The Spy: Undercover Operation” has obviously been done many, many times before around the world, and admittedly there’s very little here that’s new or fresh. However, as a piece of commercial cinema, it’s well done and plays to its strengths, offering the kind of genre mishmash so popular in Korea, combining comedy, drama, action and domestic intrigue. Yi Seung Jun does a competent job as director and balances things to generally entertaining effect, making the most of the sillier aspects of the premise and working in some funny set pieces, most of which revolve around misunderstandings and Chul Soo’s increasingly manic attempts to keep his identity secret. At the same time, Yi never neglects the action, and wisely throws in plenty of set pieces, some of which are surprisingly violent, and this gives the film at least somewhat of an edge and keeps the audience distracted from its more overly familiar beats. The exotic Thai locations also help, with some nice cinematography and solid, glossy production values providing lots of eye candy.
Ultimately, it’s the cast that makes a difference here, Sol Kyung Gu and Moon So Ri giving the audience a likeable lead couple, their real world problems (predominantly the desire to have a baby) keeping them believable and grounded. Though the way things work out is fully predictable, it’s a lot of fun watching them bicker and sneak around each other, with Sol and Moon enjoying a genuine chemistry (the two worked together previously on Lee Chang Dong’s superb “Oasis” back in 2002), and even if they are playing roles that aren’t exactly challenging, both are on good form and kick the material up a notch. For all the national threat and nuclear danger, their relationship is very much at the centre of the film, and this does give “The Spy” a touch of heart. Daniel Henney also does well in a rare villainous role, coming across as impressively evil at times, and while the script makes a bit of misstep in a late stab at making him sympathetic, he’s a good foil for the heroes.
Though nothing special, “The Spy: Undercover Operation” is a decent Korean popcorn flick, and one which does everything it sets out too. While it’d have been more interesting to see how it could have turned out in the hands of Lee Myung Se, it’s a couple of hours of perfectly acceptable entertainment, boosted by its trio of big name stars.
Lee Seung-jun (director)
CAST: Kyung-gu Sol … Chul-Soo
So-ri Moon … Young-Hee
Daniel Henney … Ryan
Dean Dawson … Head C.I.A. Agent
Kahlid Elijah Tapia … C.I.A. Agent 2