The latest by Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven, Kundo), The Spy Gone North is loosely based on the real-life story of Park Chae-seo, here rechristened as Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min, New World). Codenamed “Black Venus,” he was recruited by the South Korean intelligence division in the 90s to serve as an undercover operative in North Korea. Intelligence indicated that the North had the capacity to create nuclear weapons and Park’s mission was to infiltrate the country and get close to the nuclear centre in the locked-down city of Pyongyang in order to verify the rumours. But because this is based on real events, although the film cops to having fictionalised aspects of the narrative, doing so took a years-long process involving the creation of shell companies, airtight covers, and plenty of close hobnobbing with top North Korean officials, in particular one Ri Myung-woon (Lee Sung-min) whom Park effectively became partners with on a massive unrelated project revolving around utilising the closed-off North as a potential shooting location in adverts for South-based companies which had the potential to thaw the frozen relations between the two countries.
Much like real spy work – from what I’ve heard in films and memoirs like these, I am very obviously not a spy myself – The Spy Gone North starts slow and unfocussed as Park and his superior (Cho Jin-woong) put together a believable cover business that will necessitate Park travel to North Korea on a regular basis. But it snaps into greater focus in its second half, after Park’s first meeting with Kim Jong-Il (Gi Ju-bong), where the relationship between Park and Ri is brought to the foreground as the film’s emotional centre and Park’s mission is forcibly switched into helping influence the upcoming South Korean elections, as the ruling party becomes petrified about the rise of a Communist challenger. Jong-bin and co-screenwriter Kwon Sung-hwi eventually reveal their intentions to be a condemnation of intelligence agencies altogether, whose existences are nothing more than an extension of tyrannical governments that serve only those in power rather than the people who need protecting. North Korea is more blatant about it, the opulence of Kim Jong-Il’s palace and litany of personal guards who serve him blindly with a mixture of loyalty and fear contrasting with the dead children lining the streets, but the South turns out to be not much better, gladly colluding with anyone that can keep the conservative party in power and burning agents out of spite.
The film mixes day-to-day busywork required for successful undercover operations – Park’s first job is to intentionally discredit his name and character by becoming a deadbeat drunkard who pisses away his friends’ money to throw North Korean vetters off his scent, and much of the film’s first half is devoted to the many lengths everyone has to go to pull a believable business out of thin air – with old-fashioned spy drama tropes. Bugging hotel rooms, wild goose chases designed to test loyalties, cryptic conversations where maybe Park’s been found out or maybe he hasn’t or maybe he has but the other person is intentionally turning a blind eye. All are executed with enough skill and tension for The Spy Gone North to work as a traditional spy thriller. But the real strengths of the film lie in the dramatisation of a fascinating stretch of under-discussed history, Hwang Jung-min’s double turn as Park (the cover persona Park cooks up is practically a second character entirely in aspects like temperament and mannerisms), and its pointed criticisms of the artificial nature of the conflict between North and South Korea. Not to say that both countries don’t have ideological differences or legitimate grievances, but late-film reveals call out the self-serving reasons the countries have for keeping the conflict going and how they are purpose designed to empower the few at the expense of the many. It’s definitely too long and could stand to benefit from some tidying up, but The Spy Gone North is a solid, engaging spy drama well worth a watch.
Spy Gone North was released digitally on 22nd October. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.