J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

KCS Movie Night: Secretly Greatly

In North Korea, loyalty is only for the little people.  In contrast, the state owes them nothing for their faithful service and sacrifice.  A trio of DPRK sleeper spies learns this lesson the hardest way possible in Jang Cheol-soo’s Secretly Greatly (trailer here), which the Korean Cultural Service will screen for free this Tuesday in New York.

Won Ryu-hwan is one of the most lethal commandos ever forged by the North Korean military.  Folks in a sleepy South Korean town know him as Bang Dong-gu, the village idiot.  To maintain his deep cover, Won follows a strict regimen, such as regularly being seen in public doing both number one and number two.  It is a real bummer for Won when the lovely Yu Yu-ran sees him doing his duty (if you will), but at least he will have some comrades to commiserate with when two new sleepers arrive in town.

Lee Hae-rang is supposed to be a hipster-rocker, but he cannot play the simplest of chords.  However, he is well connected as the illegitimate son of a high ranking general.  On the other hand, Ri Hae-jin makes a convincing high school student, because he is still a teenager.  Of the three, only Ri has seen any action, carrying out the assassinations of several defectors. 

With the change at the top of the regime, the sleeper agents suddenly look like a potential liability, resulting in a general self-termination order.  Of course, Won will do anything his government demands, but first he has the gall to ask for some assurance the Party will take care of the beloved mother he has not seen for years.  Right, do you want the bad news first or the really bad news.  Regardless, his old commander Kim Tae-won has been dispatched to personally handle the three newly dubbed “traitors.”

Based on a web-comic, Secretly is unusually forthright about the nature of the Communist North.  Characters often refer to work camps as a punishing fact of life.  Yet, it also portrays the soul crushing impact of the lifetime of propaganda Won has absorbed and still desperately clings to.  Nevertheless, the first half of the film mostly hits comedic notes, often approaching outright slapstick.

Of course, when the DPRK turns on its former heroes, the film pivots into much darker territory.  When it is finally go time, action coordinator Park Jeong-ryul delivers some spectacularly cinematic but seriously down-and-dirty fight scenes.  Bear in mind, Secretly was a blowout hit at the Korean box office, so you can also expect some tragedy down the stretch, but that is also rather realistic.  Pyongyang does not do happily-ever-afters.

Kim Soo-hyun fully commits himself to Dong-gu’s cringy humiliations, perhaps even overdoing it a tad.  Still, he is a credible action figure when Won gets down to business.  Park Ki-woong is a bit more restrained as would be rocker Lee, while Son Hyun-joo is all kinds of badness as the conspicuously scarred military heavy.  Although is a small supporting role, Lee Chae-young also has some fine moments as the town tramp, nicely bringing out Dong-gu’s inner tensions.

Secretly has no illusions about the dehumanizing nature of the DPRK, but it is not so crazy about the ROK government either.  Arguably, the most sympathetic figure of officialdom is Kim Soo-hyuk, the unreconstructed but fundamentally decent cold warrior charged with capturing the sleeper spies.  Altogether it is a strange mix of broad comedy, gritty action, and cynical intrigue that works far better than it might sound.  Recommended for fans of spy vs. spy beatdowns, Secretly Greatly screens this coming Tuesday (9/10) at the Tribeca Cinemas, free of charge, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

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