Based on the testimony of infamous South Korean spy “Black Venus,” who once infiltrated the highest ranks of North Korean leadership, Yoon Jong-bin’s “The Spy Gone North” recounts a tortuous operation that’s more fascinating and far-fetched than many fictional espionage yarns. Instead of the usual dose of action and suspense one expects of this genre, watching this dense 140-minute political drama unfold is like fumbling through a long tunnel that’s nonetheless worth it when the ray of light emerges at the end. Though nowhere near as crowd-pleasing as the recent espionage action-fantasy “Steel Rain,” this well-crafted work deserves to be seen for its thorough account of intricate workings of secret service and political skullduggery.
After debuting with the violent and intense independent film “The Unforgiven,” which screened in Cannes’ Un certain regard section in 2005, Yoon went on achieve commercial success. Even so, a strain of social critique, notably outrage against institutional corruption, runs through his works such as period martial arts western “Kundo, Age of the Rampant” and retro underworld movie “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time.” These films also have a sprawling quality, which Yoon takes to a more trying level in “The Spy Gone North.” Without falling back on a single action setpiece, car chase or explosion — conceits that are staples of Korean blockbusters — the writer-director a presents a gritty chronicle of the long, difficult road to détente.
In 1993, news leaks out that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. Choi Hak-seong (Cho Jin-woong), director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) appoints Major Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min) to infiltrate Yongbyon, a city where the nuclear plant is supposed to be located.
In a complete detour from “Mission Impossible”-style spy thrillers in which the hero undergoes killer training drills and stocks up on state-of-the-art ammo, Park’s preparation involves getting piss-drunk, gambling and taking out huge loans.
Under the code name “Black Venus,” Park goes to Beijing pretending to be a businessman eager to find trade opportunities with the North. For more than an hour’s running time, all one sees is Park going through various leads and brokers, in and out of stuffy hotels and through steamy alleyways. With almost no dramatic tension, one is exposed to a more mundane side of intelligence operations, which requires patience and paperwork rather than leaping from skyscrapers.
Finally, Park finds his way to Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min), director of the NKDR External Economic Council. What follows are rounds of clandestine dinners with ice-breaking rituals (“We North Koreans will not negotiate without drinking.”) and social lubricants (like Rolex watches) for both sides to suss each other out. The film’s depiction of how Communist elites talk business wouldn’t look out of place in a Korean crime thriller dramatizing shady deals between South Korean congressmen, prosecutors, chaebol owners and the mafia.
From this point, the plot thickens considerably, culminating in a trip to Pyongyang, where Park has the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of meeting Kim Jung-il himself. With the support of Ri, Park proposes a joint-venture that sounds like a Ponzi scheme, but the supreme leader bites the bait. Visual effects employed to simulate the hermit capital are stunning. The excitement and trepidation of being in the supreme leader’s presence is conveyed vividly.
A major plot turn occurs when the right-wing ruling party intervenes in the imminent general election, which threatens the NIS’ survival. South Koreans may be familiar with the details and outcome of this scandal, but for a foreign audience, the conspiracies are quite intriguing. The narrative takes its time to unfold so that the back-and-forth power games are comprehensible. It also takes up a large chunk of screen time while demanding viewer concentration.
Fortunately, audiences who stick with the saga will be rewarded in the last half hour with a nail-biting climax that demonstrates in a profoundly moving manner what true patriotism means, while evoking the dormant brotherhood of Koreans despite decades of enforced division. The feel-good coda is particularly stirring in the light of the recent historic summit between Kim Jung-un and President Moon Jae-in to discuss ending the decades-long state of war.
Sporting a rough Southern Gyeongsan accent (which also happens to be Hwang’s native dialect), Black Venus’ carpetbagger image upends genre expectations. Hwang, who excels in playing the jovial working-class Ajoessi (a middle-aged geezer) in family dramas like “Ode to My Father” lays on the car-salesman smarminess in these scenes, but is equally convincing when revealing a dignified side. Lee plays the inscrutable Communist cadre without cliched villainy, letting glimpses of humanity sneak in.
Production quality befits a blockbuster of this scale, in particular the mysterious mood conjured by the pulsing guitar twangs in Cho Young-wuk’s emotive score. DP Choi Chan-min’s atmospheric lensing evokes the color and smell of three very different countries. Without setting foot in either North Korea or Beijing, Park Elhen’s production design relies on studio sets and location shooting in Taiwan. While the North Korean scenery feels breathtaking real, the Beijing streets of the ’90s look laughably fake.