Despite attaining smash-hit status in its homeland — where its tale of sleeper North Korean agents biding time in a South Korean backwater doubtless has special resonance for local ticketbuyers — “Secretly, Greatly” isn’t likely to find smooth sailing in offshore theatrical markets. Pic actually plays like a self-contained double feature, with an often broadly comical first half gradually giving way to an increasingly more somber and ultimately tragic final hour. The tonal dissonance will be off-putting for many; still, the attractive young male leads may draw femme viewers, and the storyline may intrigue international audiences curious about the contemporary fallout of the decades-old Korean political divide.
Rising young actor Kim Soo-hyun (recently seen in Choi Dong-hoon’s “The Thieves”) evinces impressive range in the lead role of Won Ryu-hwan, a rigorously trained and lethally efficient North Korean agent given a deep-cover assignment in a South Korean hamlet. As the pic begins, Won is two years into his role as village idiot Dong-gu, a simpleton employed as errand boy by the cranky proprietress of a neighborhood grocery store (Park Hye-sook). Won has played the part to perfection, dutifully following a tip sheet provided by his trainers back in Pyongyang. (Among the directives: He should be seen falling down steps every day, and defecating in the street once every month or so.) But he’s becoming restless, and wonders whether he’ll ever get a mission worthy of his talents.
Won’s discontent isn’t at all diminished by two new arrivals who, like him, are members of the elite 5446 Unit. Lee Hae-rang (Park Ki-woong), an insolent cynic who just happens to be the son of a North Korean general, seems less interested in serving his country than in pursuing a rock-star career. Lee Hae-jin (Lee Hyun-woo), a younger, much more serious-minded 5446 agent, diligently pretends to be a high-school student, but is willing to moonlight as freelance muscle when Won wants to discourage a chauvinistic boss from exploiting a pretty neighbor (Park Eun-bin).
Despite Won’s own determination to be a good soldier and not get too close to “the enemy,” he can’t deny his growing attachment to his employer, her boisterous son (Hong Gyeong-in) and others in his neighborhood. All of which increases the complications that arise when, after a regime change in Pyongyang, all members of the top-secret 5446 unit are ordered to kill themselves, or each other, to cover their tracks.
Working from a loosely constructed screenplay by Yun Hong-gi — an adaptation of a popular webtoon series by the Korean writer-illustrator known as Hun — helmer Jang Cheol-soo does a commendable job of sustaining narrative momentum and generating slow-burning suspense throughout the mood-twisting narrative. The supporting performances — ranging from Park Ki-woong’s hipster sassiness as the wannabe rocker to Son Hyun-woo’s glowering menace as the scar-faced 5446 commander — also help keep the scenario rooted in something approaching credibility.
Choe Sang-ho’s on-location lensing in Sipjeon-dong, Incheon, enhances the pic’s underlying irony that a deadly and potentially game-changing clash between North-South forces is playing out in the most ordinary and isolated of settings.