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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Secretly and Greatly"

2013/06/08 | 4731 views | Permalink

Ryoo-hwan (played by Kim Soo-hyun) is the ultimate result of intensive North Korean military training. He has near super-human reflexes, incredible combat ability, rock-hard abs, and sweeping deductive combat abilities. For this mighty warrior, the North Korean government has an essential mission. Go to South Korea and pretend to be mentally retarded indefinitely until given further instructions.

There's only really one joke- contrasting the super-cool Ryoo-hwan with his retarded alter ego. This actually works a lot better than it should. I credit a lot of this to how good Kim Soo-hyun is at transitioning between the characters so abruptly. On multiple occasions, Ryoo-hwan actually does use his super soldier skills right in front of his oblivious neighbors. It's just that the purpose is so absurd that they think he's acting impulsively. The scene with the egg stands out as the best example, though good laughs are sprinkled throughout.

What makes "Secretly and Greatly" more difficult to classify is what happens when, inevitably, Ryoo-hwan is finally given an order by the North Korean government. I was actually a little worried about the social implications of a film depicting North Korean sleeper agents lying in wait as normal citizens, ready to take aim at South Korea- but the nature of the command and Ryoo-hwan's reaction to it are surprisingly apolitical. The film as a whole ends up going a much more philosophical direction than I was expecting.

Prospective viewers should be warned- this is not an action movie in the traditional sense. If you're looking for intense physical confrontations, high-powered camerawork, and a story fraught with twists and turns, that's all in here. But the context is quite demoralizing. This is all done very deliberately to service a specific point. While I thought it was interesting storytelling, others may find themselves quite perplexed.

Outside the spy plot, the rest of the supporting cast delivers good performances. They're meant to evoke the feeling of a typical Seoul neighborhood, where everyone can be sized up pretty well at first glance. Regardless, there's hidden depths to all of them, and their relationship with Ryoo-hwan personally is revealed to be a bit more complex than what's originally seen. I was particularly impressed by Lee Chae-young's performance as Ran. A character, who like Ryoo-hwan, seems to just have a single joke- but her big secret, much like his, serves a clear parallel to the life she publically leads.

What makes "Secretly and Greatly" work is its very universalist message. What ultimately defines Ryoo-hwan is not the kind of orders that he receives, but the fact that he receives orders at all. While the comparison between his super soldier self and the mentally retarded alter-ego starts out mainly as being comedic fodder, as time passes on the parallels between the two lives become much more pronounced. Ryoo-hwan's final scene evokes a surprising sense of desperation- and with it, an uncomfortable realization in the viewer. This is certainly not what we were expecting at the beginning of this film, and yet it is entirely appropriate given all that we've seen.

Review by William Schwartz

"Secretly and Greatly" is directed by Jang Cheol-soo and features Kim Soo-hyun-I, Park Ki-woong, Lee Hyun-woo and Son Hyun-joo.

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