‘The Spy,’ ‘Covertness’ offer different takes on espionage
Spy movies hold special appeal for Koreans, who still regularly hear news reports about secret agents from North Korea. More than 60 years after the peninsula was divided, however, some Korean espionage films are no longer featuring conventional spy heroes with suave personas. Rather, there are characters like the North Korean agent in “The Spy” who is more concerned with soaring food and housing prices than his next secret mission.
Director Woo Min-ho had an epiphany when the cost of skyrocketing rent hit him hard after he finished his debut feature, “Man of Vendetta”(2010).
“It occurred to me that secret agents also are not free from real-life issues,” Woo said during a press pre-screening event Tuesday for “The Spy,” which opened in theaters yesterday.
The main leads don’t dress in tailored Italian suits or carry the latest high-tech weaponry. They lead mundane lives in the rat race of South Korea because the contentious relationship with North Korea just isn’t, well, as contentious as it was in the 1960s and ’70s.
A North Korean secret agent known only as Kim (Kim Myung-min) is happily married and living with his loving wife and two adorable children. He appears to be a typical Korean family man who sacrifices everything for his kids.
And Kim’s comrades look like anything but professional secret agents. Kang (Yeom Jeong-ah) has become a complete Korean ajumma, which not only means a middle-aged woman but also connotes a pushy old lady. Working as a real estate agent, Kang uses her harpy voice to browbeat sellers into lowering their asking price and becomes extremely sensitive if there is even a moment’s delay in receiving her 100,000 won ($89.13) commission.
A veteran spy called Adviser Yoon (Byeon Hee-bong) spends most of his time with the go players in Tapgol Park, central Seoul, while Agent Woo (Jung Gyu-woon) protests against a free trade agreement after moving back to the countryside to raise cows.
All the characters appear to be out of place in the espionage film genre, but that is precisely what Woo intended.
“I want to deliver a message that the agents are all human beings. They are someone’s father and mother, and live with similar concerns that we have,” the director said.
The story of “The Spy” unfolds when Kim receives an assassination assignment after a 10-year hiatus.
“The Spy” is not alone in taking a fresh approach. “Covertness,” by Jang Cheol-soo, goes one step further to feature a more eccentric spy hero.
In an adaptation of the popular Webtoon series by writer Hun, Won Ryu-hwan (Kim Soo-hyun), an undercover North Korean spy, disguises himself as a rural idiot. He may be fluent in five languages with an uncanny ability to read people, but he is the laughingstock of the village.
His bosses in North Korea dispatch him as part of a group of agents who pose as aspiring idol singers, and they embark on a somewhat absurd project to debut as an idol boy band “Flower Boy Idol Trio,” adding comedic chops to the film.
The tone of these movies is in sharp contrast with previous spy movies, such as Kang Je-gyu’s “Shiri”(1999), Kim Hyun-jung’s “Double Agent”(2003), “Secret Reunion”(2010) by Jang Hun and, most recently, “Poongsan”(2011) directed by Juhn Jai-hong. Those films mostly explore tensions between South and North through the experiences of secret agents and their identity crises.
The emerging trend of common-man secret agents, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that spy movies steer completely clear of dark and serious sentiment.
Director Ryu Seung-woo’s upcoming flick “Berlin” focuses on the usual secretive professionals who chase after each another. Being shot in Berlin and Latvia, the big-budget film traces the chase among three secret agents for South and North Korea.
Ha Jung-woo takes the role of a Northern double agent based in Berlin. He is betrayed and cut loose in the midst of a financial espionage intrigue. He and his wife (Jeon Ji-hyun) try to flee the country for fear of being purged, while North and South Korean operatives Ryu Seung-beom and Han Suk-kyu go after him.
Featuring the Brandenburg Gate, American Embassy and Holocaust Memorial, the director said he seeks to portray “the solitude and complicated mixture of feelings” of secret agents in grim and somewhat exotic locations.
“Berlin” is scheduled to hit theaters in the first half of next year along with another spy movie, “The Classmate” by Park Hong-soo.
By Park Eun-jee [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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