The Spy Gone North
South Korea, 2018, 137’, Korean, Chinese
Directed by: Yoon Jong-bin
Script: Kwon Sung-hui, Yoon Jong-bin
Photography (color): Choi Chan-min
Editing: Kim Jae-beom, Kim Sang-beom
Art Direction: Park Il-hyun
Music: Jo Young-wook
Producers: Han Jae-deok, Son Sang-beom, Kook Su-ran
Cast: Hwang Jung-min (Park Seok-young/Black Venus), Lee Sung-min (Ri Myong-un), Cho Jin-woong (Choi Hak-seong), Ju Ji-hoon (Jung Moo-taek), Ki Joo-bong (Kim Jung-il)
Date of First Release in Territory: August 8th, 2018
The year is 1993, right before South Korea was to embark on a fateful transition to a civilian democratic government under President Kim Young-sam. A crack military intelligence officer, Park Seok-young, is recruited by KCIA honcho Choi Hak-seong, who has learned from the Americans that North Korea is secretly developing a nuclear power program. Park, code-named Black Venus, becomes a deep cover agent tasked with finding out the truth about the regime’s nuclear development, assuming the identity of an amoral international businessman willing to do business with Northerners via his contacts in Beijing. With practiced displays of both capitalist callousness and companionable sincerity (not entirely fake on his part), he eventually becomes close to Ri Myong-un, a Northern official in charge of foreign economic outreach (in other words, laundering, raking and scooping stacks of dollar bills into North Korea via whatever means possible).
Working from a screenplay he co-authored with Kwon Sung-hui (Ghost Sweepers), Yoon Jong-bin adapted this film from the jaw-dropping memoirs of the real-life Black Venus, Park Chae-seo. Yoon maintains a deliberate pace in unspooling the increasingly amazing story of Park’s double life, refraining from the common mistake of radically compressing narrative details for fear of boring its viewers.
The movie is pretty long at 2 hours and 17 minutes and, to be fair, it should not be mistaken for a rousing Tom Cruise vehicle-type action extravaganza. There is a strong ‘70s Sidney Lumet - Alan J. Pakula vibe to the proceedings, but Yoon refuses to herd his viewers toward easy emotional identification with the beleaguered protagonist Park and his Northern partner-in-cloak-and-dagger, Ri, allowing these characters to gradually earn the viewer’s admiration and sympathy.
Yoon’s patient approach brings the best out of both Hwang Jung-min and Lee Sung-min as his lead performers. Hwang is completely believable as an idealistic, intelligent agent with the outward shell of a greedy, craven loudmouth, but the movie’s moral compass really belongs to Lee. The latter gives a restrained yet powerful performance, one of the best in his distinguished supporting-actor career, subtly conveying the seasoned Northern official’s essential decency, nonetheless callused by years of living under oppression.
The Spy Gone North is also noteworthy for its thoughtful, historically astute approach to North-South relations, all the more evident when compared to other fancier and slicker espionage thrillers such as The Berlin File and Steel Rain. Whereas these films end up using North-South relations as basically a local setting or elements of a plot to foreground or thread together established genre conventions, Yoon does the opposite. He starts with all the ingredients of an ordinary spy thriller and gradually chips away at them, until, by the climax, The Spy ends up persuasively showing just how strange and unfamiliar North-South relations in fact are.
The Spy Gone North perhaps does not break new cinematic ground, but is, in its limber but persistent way, determined to avoid action-movie or thriller clichés about North-South relations and to make sense of the genuine human toll that the surreal ideological-political chess games the powerholders play with one another has taken throughout the postwar history of the peninsula. Quietly witty, well aware of the banal absurdity of the peninsula’s politics, but neither self-satisfied nor condescending, the film is a significant achievement for Yoon Jong-bin.
Yoon Jong-bin studied at Chung-Ang University, where he directed the low-budget The Unforgiven. Yoon’s first commercial feature Beastie Boys centered on male hosts in Seoul’s nightlife districts. In 2012, the Busan-set drama Nameless Gangster was a commercial breakthrough. He followed that up with Kundo: Age of the Rampant, a tale of bandits set in the Joseon Dynasty, and The Spy Gone North, which screened in Cannes’ Midnight Section and amassed 5 million admissions. Apart from directing, he has also produced the box office hits A Violent Prosecutor (2016), Money (2019) and The Closet (2020).
2005 – The Unforgiven
2008 – Beastie Boys
2012 – Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
2014 – Kundo: Age of the Rampant
2018 – The Spy Gone North