In 2010 Jang Cheol-soo burst onto the scene with the gorgeously grotesque thriller "Bedevilled". It was a horrific event that stunned all those who dared indulge, and tagged Jang as one crafty talent to keep an eye on, reportedly "the best find of 2010". Since his bloody debut, however, Jang has deprived the public of a subsequent session and we have had to eagerly wait for his next cinematic outing. That wait was over when in June, 2013 "Secretly and Greatly" hit the circuit: a complex action drama that broke the all-time single day ticket haul for a Korean film with 919,036 stubs sold. Fans flooded the theatres to catch Jang's second outing, and the film eventually climbed its way to 6.9 million admissions to became the 5th highest grossing Korean movie of the year.
"Secretly and Greatly" follows three young North Korean sleeper cell agents embedded within a warm village community. Ryoo-hwan, Hae-rang, and the youngster Hae-jin, all went through intense training back home and represent the North's most promising secret servants. Each of them has been given an alias, a specific character assigned to them that they must doggedly maintain. Ryoo-hwan (Kim Soo-hyun), the most high-ranking and skilful of the bunch, has been acting the village idiot for years now; Hae-rang (Park Ki-woong) must become a Korean rock star (not as easy as he originally thinks with all the mad singing and musical talent around); and Hae-jin (Lee Hyun-woo), the naïve and steadfast young gun, has it a bit easier with just being a schoolboy-albeit one that can pick you off from fifty yards away.
Of these three sheep-skinned Comrades it is Ryoo-hwan who is, in addition to being the lead, the most amusing and complex. He carriers out his cover with a cool deftness and hilarity that K-comedy lovers will tear over. He is always donned in a lurid green tracksuit (with one leg pushed up for 'special' effect), sports a messy mop of hair that hangs over his secretly discerning eyes, ensures his nose is always spouting mucus (by actually inserting a tissue in the mornings to summon the sort), and is quick to muster up a simpleton's squint when community's eyes are upon him. In order to maintain his cover, Ryoo-hwan also has a checklist that he sticks to with ridged military precision. Perhaps the most challenging of which, and indeed embarrassing, is that Ryoo-hwan is required to defecate in front of someone every six months; a dutifully dump, if you will, that helps maintain his dummy image to the tightly-knit community to which he was assigned.
The spies' covers are flawless, and as they await their activation orders the trinity become increasingly attached to the amicable villagers and their lives. However things get complicated quickly when the political powers back home decide to scrape these 'salmons' (a term they use to describe agents sent down South). These infiltrators are then confronted with the unenviable choice of either remaining loyal to their original cause, or the new lives and relationships they have fostered during their undercover stints.
"Secretly and Greatly" may at first appear a relatively straight shooter, and followers of Korea cinema will be all too familiar with the film's premise and political preoccupations. The film is, however, a deceptively complex affair that weaves an invitingly emotive thread throughout, one that thickens and splits in surprising ways. The first half really focuses on the community of characters and is littered with laughter, only touching on the over-arching political storm that is brewing. The latter half switches scope and inverts this light-hearted happiness in favour of a darker reality flecked with past hopes and dreams. This compelling structuring is not too dissimilar from "Bedevilled", and makes for an engrossing and empathetic journey that parts comedy, drama, and action clearly and without compromise. Often Korean films opt to blend such genres moment-to-moment, and in doing so sacrifice one for the other, which can leave viewers emotionally unsure and even confused. Here, however, their inclusion feels more honest, less distracting, and is segmented in such a way to give the film energising sense of purpose and flow.
Jang's second feature is just as cinematically imposing as his debut. "Bedevilled" contained some of best cinematography and thought-provoking mise-en-scene I've come across, and that same sharp cine-eye leads viewers around here. Jang's compositions are striking and compelling, adding richness to moments through angles and depth that perhaps other directors would simply shoot, step over, and move on to their next kill. Jang is often tilting and twisting the camera to unbalance our perspective; manipulating depths and eye-stops to intensify events; flirting with surprising and tight eye-lines; pushing his characters around the frame in interesting ways; but Jang also has the ability to step back and contemplate the bigger picture or setting: detailing the world and reflecting on his puppets' placement within it. Visually "Secretly and Greatly" is stunning and an absolute pleasure to watch.
The directing duties were originally tasked to Juhn Jai-hong ("Poongsan" and "Beautiful"), and although it would have be interesting to see how Juhn would have approached this adaptation (the original webcomic is by Hun, titled "Covertness", and it ran from June 2010 to May 2011 on Daum) the film's success can leave no doubt that the right man for the job was ultimately seated. "Secretly and Greatly" is more commercially charged that Jang's first offering (a point crystallised in the film's moot dénouement, sleeper cell premise, goofy K-comedy, and stereotypical gender roles); but although the film wallows in fairly safe pastures, the cash cow Jang slaughtered here was equally rich, tender, and has more than enough cultured cud to ruminate over and enjoy.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA
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