A solidly entertaining spy movie that substitutes interior tension for large-scale action sequences, “Double Agent” is held together by a fine performance from Han Seok-gyu in the title role as a North Korean plant who infiltrates the upper levels of the South’s KCIA. Despite some false steps, this good-looking widescreen debut by helmer Kim Hyeon-jeong, who scripted last year’s meaty cop drama “Public Enemy,” could prove an audience pleaser at non-arty fests and Asian-centered events, with some action on ancillary.
On local release in January, pic drew some 1 million admissions — a comfortable figure but below expectations considering it was the first film by major star Han since the serial-killer mystery “Tell Me Something” three years ago. Lack of explosive action was one explanation, especially as the movie follows in the steps of other North-South blockbusters like “Shiri” and “JSA.”
First seen in a 1979 Pyongyang military parade (courtesy of some clever CGI), Im Byeong-ho (Han) next pops up at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie in June ’80, where he just about manages to defect to the West with his life intact. A week later, he’s in Seoul, where KCIA goons beat the bejeezus out of him to find out if he’s for real or not.
The South Koreans decide he’s genuine, though he’s assigned a permanent minder and is warned by KCIA high-up Song Gyeong-man (Song Jae-ho, coolly suspicious) that he’ll shoot him like a dog if he discovers he’s a double agent. A couple of years later, Im is moved from training agents to analyzing intelligence data from the North.
It soon becomes clear that Im is, in fact, working for Pyongyang, and that his interest in a classical music radio program, emceed by the beautiful Yun Su-mi (Goh So-yeong), is not just because he likes Mozart. Yun suddenly announces she’s quitting her job for personal reasons — actually, she’s been ordered to work as Im’s controller.
The two are able to meet in full sight, as Yun is a member of Song’s church and the latter actually encourages Im to start romancing her. Blessed with this perfect cover, which even fools the astute Song, things go smoothly for a while until the KCIA starts to uncover the North’s spy ring in the South. Im’s implication in the ring starts to look like only a matter of time, forcing some ruthless decisions.
Film has an excellent feel for its period setting of the ’80s, when the South was still under a military dictatorship of its own, and the point is repeatedly made that the South was just as single-minded and ruthless as the North. The interrogation seshes in the KCIA’s creepy basement are pretty brutal, especially one in which Im is forced to torture a fellow spy to protect his own cover. Pic also economically sketches the constant sense of suspicion on a small peninsula where a covert war is still being intensively waged.
Goh, who’s made her mark in a string of romancers, including the under-rated “Love Wind, Love Song” (1999), is OK as the South Korean-born spy whose communist father moved North, but it’s Han’s highly focused, convincing perf as the totally committed spook that dominates the picture. He’s surrounded by a strong cast of older actors, including Song as his boss.
Production values are rich, serving the story and atmosphere rather than just for show. Music by German-born composer Michael Staudacher is disappointingly cliched, but widescreen lensing by Kim Seong-bok is fine. The Czech Republic and Portugal stand in fine for Berlin and Brazil.