Thursday, February 8, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | The Spy Gone North (2018) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Hwang Jung-bin, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ju Ji-hoon, Jung So-ri, Kim Hong-pa, Gi Ju-bong

Set in the year 1993, a man named Heuk Geum-seong is sort of pulled against his will into becoming a spy for South Korea. He goes by the codename Black Venus and is posing as a businessman selling Chinese products in Beijing, snowballing into linking up with the North Korean government in hopes of acquiring intel on North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and digging into the state of their nuclear weapons and seeing just how powerful the hidden country may be. This is based on a true story, and of course, with any film of this nature, there will always be details altered for dramatization purposes, but with this end result in the form of The Spy Gone North, what we have is a powerfully told story of espionage that doesn't find itself stuck in the genre trapping of most spy films. There are no guns fired and no real action set pieces. Instead, the intensity, which is almost unbearable at times, comes from the real-life threat of the situation, which unfortunately remains true to this day, and the looming threat of war breaking out at any moment. This is right up there with the very best work from Yoon.

Even though the film is based on true events, I really don't wish to speak too much about the film's plotting. It's intricately woven, with Black Venus moving closer and closer within the network of North Korea's government. Along the way, there are a variety of characters introduced that are extremely interesting, such as Jeong Moo-taek (Ju Ji-hoon), the Section Chief who oversees National Security measures from the North, as well as Ri Myeong-woon (Lee Sung-min), who is in charge of welcoming and overseeing Black Venus' stay in North Korea. He acts as the heart of the story and is dynamic with Black Venus. The relationship they develop, a sort of friendship and a sense of brotherhood between one another, is something special to behold, and I haven't really felt as emotionally impacted by a North / South Korean bonding of characters since Park Chan-wook's J.S.A back in 2000. It just feels so poignant and the sense of what will never be just weighs heavily on your heart as you watch these two men grow fondly of one another. Lastly, Kim Jong-il is portrayed by veteran actor Gi Ju-bong (a very regular Hong Sang-soo collaborator), in some of the best practical make-up work I've ever seen. His small stature is a perfect fit for playing Kim, and he just sinks into the aesthetic and really sells the role. I didn't even realize who it was playing him until I looked into it.

Hwang Jung-min, which really goes without saying, is such a strong performer. He always manages to give an excellent performance and is such an emotionally rich and diverse actor; no matter the role or the overall quality of the film, he seems to manage to give it his all each and every time. His turn in here as Black Venus is no exception. You never forget as you are watching the turn of events play out that he is, first and foremost, a man of compassion and a patriot. He loves his country and wants to protect South Korea's best interest at all costs, but at the same time, he also is taught many things during his time in the north. It never feels nationalistic in a preachy way but rather asks the questions of what if, the possibilities of seeing the people of the two Koreas being able to have their spirits rekindled, those relationships that once were to be rebuilt again. It doesn't shy away from the grim realities of the North and their situation. Again, there is not much in the way of action or set pieces here, although the film retains that grand sense of scope and high production value. It is a very muted-looking film but it doesn't feel awash. Stylistic but in a subtle way. The score is powerful and fits the themes and narrative nicely. Per usual with a Yoon Jong-bin picture, it feels like every bit of money given to the project is put onscreen nicely.

Speaking of acting, the aforementioned performance by Lee Sung-min just may be the best thing about the film, and everything else is so strong. He commands the screen when he is present and never overacts to do so, either. He is a very layered character with many nuances in his acting. He begins to expose his heart and desires for a better nation to Black Venus but is quick to suppress any emotion shown when around his comrades. He gets things done, but he displays a great sense of vulnerability throughout that makes him the crux of it all. It's such a beautiful performance and one that I think shows just how riveting Lee is in the industry once more. He has been doing it for a long time, and he's just one of those actors who knows how to bring out the best in each role he is given. I won't spoil anything, but there is more than one occasion where I found myself tearing up at the words spoken by his Ri Myeong-woon character. As I mentioned earlier, it doesn't ever shy away from any harsh truths either, and I also appreciated that aspect.

The Spy Gone North marks the last feature that Yoon Jong-bin has directed (as of February 2024). He also directed a miniseries, which I will be diving into very soon for the site here. He also has another series that is set to launch this year, so who knows whether he wants to return to feature films anytime soon. If that is the case, it would be a shame as he has crafted so many beautiful pieces of work, but at the same time, I suppose I could contradict myself and feel just as grateful for said films. This one, in particular, is just as emotionally rich and heavy as the first film that he made for university, The Unforgiven (2005), but on a much larger scale. No matter the money or scope of the project that he has worked on, Yoon has never forgotten to keep his films grounded in humanity. I think his stories are powerful, whether he is setting out to purely entertain like with Kundo (2014), or tell an important piece of history like with this film. The Spy Gone North is a very important and timely piece of filmmaking, and one that I'm sure will find its way into the hearts of many film lovers as time goes on. It's yet again another masterful slice of cinema by one of South Korea's finest working directors today. My highest recommendation.

Written by Josh Parmer

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