'The Spy Gone North' ('Gongjak'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of CJ Entertainment
Lee Sung-min in 'The Spy Gone North.'
A timely, confusing, fascinating, long-winded true story.

Hwang Jung-min plays a South Korean spy sent to uncover the nuclear secrets of North Korea in Yoon Jong-bin’s political thriller.

North and South Korea tangle at the highest governmental levels in The Spy Gone North (Gongjak). Plotted less as spy story and more as political exposé, it’s closer to, say, a Watergate cover-up than your standard John Le Carre. In addition, this lavish South Korean production directed by respected filmmaker Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven) is a stylish, blood-pounding thriller of the type Asian cinema is so good at making. The film succeeds at being both exciting and character-driven, but only after a confused first half that will leave international viewers frustrated over who’s who and what’s going on.

Still, for sheer topicality, the film is hard to beat, and to find a full-blown entertainment yarn in Cannes’ midnight section that’s partially set in newsworthy North Korea is rather astounding. The story, scripted by the director and Kwon Sung-hui, is based on the true story of a South Korean intelligence operative, code-named Black Venus, who infiltrated and corrupted North Korean power circles during the nuclear crisis of the 1990s. The subject will certainly be its selling point outside Asia, though the first half will need disentangling for non-Korean audiences.

Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the story initially races along so fast and with so many historical facts to absorb that one wishes it would slow down. Typed titles on the screen inform that after the Korean War (1950-'53), an armistice was signed between the two countries. The South became rich and capitalist and the North continued poor and communist under supreme leader Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un.)

In the 1990s, a denuclearization treaty for the Korean peninsula was touted, but in 1993, the North threatened to withdraw from it on grounds of national security. This is the point when the story of spy Black Venus begins.

Park Suk-young (played by star Hwang Jung-min, Ode to My Father) is a courageous intelligence officer working in the South Korean defense department, whose cover is created by having him turn into a drunken gambler. When he is booted out of the military, he becomes a brash businessman willing to stoop low in the pursuit of cash. In reality, he reports to the pragmatic head of the National Intelligence Service, Director Choi (Cho Jin-woong.)

Choi sends young Park to Beijing to rustle up business with North Korea; it will serve as his Trojan horse to get into the country without creating suspicion. His mission is to corroborate stories that the North is not only developing nuclear weapons, but already has them. To do this, he needs to get close to the top-secret Yongbyon nuclear complex, which is still very much in the news today.

Rather amazingly (given that this is a true story), Park manages not only to convince the North’s top officials he’s a bona fide, cash-rich businessman, but he also scores personal meetings with the supreme leader. His first encounters with the powerful Director Ri (stage and screen actor Lee Sung-min), who heads the North’s Economic Council, and tough state security chief Jong (good-looking Ju Ji-hoon from Along With the Gods) is fraught with tension and suspicion. But the North is in a jam and needs a lot of cash fast. All they can pull together, laughably, is $100,000, and they need much more. Businessman Park obliges with a bulging briefcase, which he nonchalantly brings to Beijing’s swinging Millennium hotel.

When Park gets a call to fly to North Korea, it looks like the Black Venus op is a success. Cinematographer Choi Chan Min tones down the color register to numbing grays to match the stock footage of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, with its campy 1950s-style Cold War views of empty boulevards, ugly public buildings and giant murals glorifying the regime.

Park’s meetings with the Great Leader are grotesque and frightening. Army officers march in choreographed formation around the short man while a little white dog scuffles at his feet. “Dies Irae” is the soundtrack, and one can sense risk in the air whenever Kim is around. His intentions are soon made clear when he hands Park a priceless vase to sell in the South; later, Park tells his chief an entire museum is for sale.

This is where the film changes course, diverting Park's mission from patriotic spying to interfering with national elections. His boss, Director Choi, is in bed with the ruling party to maintain the status quo; the opposition candidate Kim Dae-jung, should he win, intends to revamp the entire security department and send them packing. The solution is to enlist Kim Jong-il’s aid to create a security panic on the border, to discourage voters from going left.

When politics rears its ugly head, even Black Venus feels nauseated. Moreover, he is just getting clearance for the Yongbyon area. A walk through streets littered with filthy, starving people and a mountain of dead bodies where cannibalism is almost subliminally suggested is social statement enough.

Also, Park’s relationship with the cold, suspicious Director Ri has progressed marvelously as these standout actors find space to develop their characters. Both are unflinching patriots, yet they trust each other. The film’s finest, most touching moment is in their exchange of gifts: a fake gold Rolex from Park, and a gold tie clip from Ri emblazoned “To an audacious spirit.”  

Production companies: Moonlight Film, Sanai Pictures
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ju Ji-hoon
Director: Yoon Jong-bin
Screenwriters:  Kwon Sung-hui, Yoon Jong-bin
Producers: Han Jae-duk, Son Sang-bum, Kuk Su-ran
Executive producers: Miky Lee, Jeong Tae-sung
Director of photography: Choi Chan Min
Production designer: Park Elhen
Costume designer:  Chae Kyung-hwa
Editor: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Cho Young-wuk
World sales: CJ Entertainment
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)
141 minutes