In the 1990’s, a man named Park Chae-seo managed to secure an audience with the late leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. But there was much more at stake at that meeting than a trade agreement – Park’s codename was “Black Venus” and he was a South Korean spy, sent to the North to infiltrate their nuclear facilities. His story, told in an autobiographical novel, inspired director Yoon Jong-bin (Kundo: Age of the Rampant) to adapt the story for the silver screen. The Spy Gone North had its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, became an immediate box office hit after its domestic release and garnered a series of awards.
It is 1993, and Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min), a former South Korean army officer, is chosen by the NIS (National Intelligence Service) to become their spy in the North and tasked with finding out information about the North Korean nuclear program. He is set with an iron-clad cover as an ex-army officer who is willing to do business with just about anyone in the black market. It does not take long for him to make contact with the North Korean power broker Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min), and the level of tension in the film escalates as Park climbs the power ladder – all the way up to meeting the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il (Gi Ju-bong) himself. The plot thickens further as in 1997, Park, who is still deep undercover, discovers the back-door trading between the highest officials of the North and the South, trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming presidential election with the so-called ‘North Wind’ effect.
Even though the story of the film takes the liberty of filling in many blanks, it depicts a believable portrait of events. In a way, it is mind-blowing just how many of them actually happened, which only adds to the overall value of the film. Yoon Jong-bin also manages to keep the viewers on their toes without forcefully adding action scenes – the majority of the story is realistically depicted as a battle of wits instead of fists, with a tension that never really lets the viewer loose.
The credit for the way the tensions rise and fall, and keep the viewer’s attention locked on the screen throughout the film, is due also to the film’s amazing cast – it is no surprise that Hwang Jung-min (Ode to My Father, Veteran, The Wailing) did an excellent job in his role as the slippery Park Seok-young, and Cho Jin-woong (A Hard Day, The Handmaiden) delivered another determined performance as NIS’s Choi Hak-sung. Lee Sung-min (Kundo: Age of the Rampant, A Violent Prosecutor) did a wonderful job as Ri Myong-un, portraying the man with just the right amount of emotion. Ju Ji-hoon (Along with the Gods epics, Asura: The City of Madness) also did a solid job in the villainous role of the willful North Korean State Security Department Head Jung; it’s time to truly forget his pretty-boy past – it seems that Ju really comes into his own when cast in antagonistic roles.
Another thing about the casting of the film that really stands out is that it dared to go to a place most South Korean films shy away from, by directly casting Gi Ju-bong (The Battleship Island, The Treacherous) as the late Kim Jong-il, giving him a decent amount of screen time. The make-up department did a splendid job by turning Gi into an uncanny likeness of the Supreme Leader, even if his performance comes off as a tad too caricatured. But the film otherwise takes care not to take things too far on either side by placing the central balance of the film on the relationship between Park Seok-young and Ri Myoung-un, two men who might have seen the ugly side of respective countries and their leaders, but still work with the hopes of protecting their own people, and one day achieving the much-needed peace.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Signature Entertainment