By Lee Hyo-won
A story about North and South Korean spies called "Secret Reunion"
may initially seem like mawkish cliche capitalizing on the tragic divide of the peninsula.
But pleasantly surprising, bona fide entertainment is on offer ― an incisive observation of modern Korea that is tastefully packaged as a humorous and gripping story of a budding "bromance" between foes.
North Korean secret agent Ji-won (Gang Dong-won
) crosses the 38th Parallel on a big mission to assassinate a comrade who has betrayed the regime. When the National Intelligence Service (NIS) led by Han-gyu (Song Kang-ho
) intervenes, a shooting rampage ensues in the heart of Seoul.
Both parties suffer losses but the adept Northerner completes his assignment and escapes, while Han-gyu, having failed miserably, is fired. Ji-won, however, is suspected as having manipulated the operation and is also deserted by his agency.
Six years have passed and Han-gyu makes a living running a third-rate Private Eye
business, catching runaway immigrant housewives rather than enemies of the state, while Ji-won leads a renegade life, all the while trying to get in touch with his squad.
The two cross paths by chance and they immediately recognize each other from the fateful incident; each believing that their own identity has not been compromised they wear smiles and start a business partnership in order to steal information from the other.
Over the course of the two-way spying, however, they come to realize that they have much in common. But just as they start opening their hearts to each other, Pyongyang contacts Ji-won for his last mission and the duo stands at a crossroads.
, the Kim Ki-duk
apprentice who made a stellar directorial debut with "Rough Cut"
, solidifies his reputation: He is a gamely leading wheel on this action-tricycle, of which the rear set is fiercely propelled by the acting duo.
The film focuses on showing the human side of the two rivals, and is essentially a story about family. Han-gyu toils his pitiful job in order to support his daughter living abroad: "I lost a family-like colleague but I still have to feed my real family", he sighs. Likewise Ji-won desperately tries to win back the trust of his agency because he has left behind a wife and daughter in the North.
In addition to the North-South divide, "Secret Reunion"
sheds light on other dark issues ― the cancers of a materially rich yet morally challenged society such as domestic violence, overlooked immigrant population and the traps of capitalism. But these are sown into an intriguing narrative filled with episodic humor, giving the film a light, palatable texture and a sweet, rather than bitter, aftertaste.
As described by the director, the project is indeed "an assorted gift set of Song Kang-ho
style acting": the lead actor offers everything from physical farce to witty lines and myriad facial expressions to tickle the audience with laughter.
Kang, who is enjoying both critical acclaim and box office success with "JEON WOO CHI : The Taoist Wizard
", stumbles somewhat in his attempt to feign a suppressed northern dialect, but is nevertheless compelling ― twiggy physique and all ― with his piercing gaze and stolid facade.
Funnyman Ko Chang-seok
also peppers the film with humor in a supporting role.
In theaters Feb. 4. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex.