Sitges Review: 'The Spy Gone North' is a Gripping Korean Spy Thriller
by Alex Billington
October 10, 2018
Not all spy movies are like every other spy movie. And not all spies are the same. The Spy Gone North is an impressive, riveting spy thriller from Korea, made by filmmaker Yoon Jong-bin (of The Unforgiven, Beastie Boys, Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time, Kundo: Age of the Rampant). This first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in their Midnight category earlier this summer, but I just caught up with the film at the Sitges Film Festival. The more I think about, the more I love this film. It's such a slick, superb spy film that draws you into the story and keeps you intrigued with anticipation, on the edge of your seat the entire time. And there isn't much action, which works well for this fascinating story, yet it's thoroughly compelling from start to finish. This film really stands out above so many others - in the way of spy films and thrillers.
Yoon Jong-bin's The Spy Gone North is set across a few years the 1990s and follows a loyal South Korean secret agent named Park Suk-young, played by Hwang Jung-min, who is assigned to infiltrate North Korea and attempt to gain even more information on their nuclear weapons program. He operates mostly out of Beijing, where the two countries send their top officials to meet. He eventually gets caught up in a "political vortex plotted by the ruling classes of North and South Korea," but before he ends up in that sticky situation, he spends most of his time carefully establishing his alternate identity/cover as a South Korean businessman. And on establishing friendships with frightening, yet still human, North Korean officials who control the North's money for its dictator. It's quite fascinating to see him manage the delicate relationships.
Beyond the story, the film itself is superb overall. Even though it runs a total of 137 minutes, it definitely doesn't feel that long, as the film flows at a steady pace and always moves right into the important moments. There isn't any time wasted on excessive dialogue or lingering shots or scenes that don't really matter much in the long run. Their conversations are always engaging, rarely boring, an impressive feat for a political thriller. I totally love the score by Jo Yeong-wook, it's exquisite. The film has great performances from the entire cast, especially the two leads: Hwang Jung-min as Park, and Lee Sung-min as Ri. I felt deeply for the characters, thanks to their great performances, but also because the script allows us to understand them and their interactions. They're acting politically, but they are also still humans with feelings and families.
One other thing that really impressed me - I can't recall any guns being fired in this movie at all. Which is a curious for a spy thriller but also it keeps the tension so much just at the performance and interaction level, making it so riveting to watch. Most spy thrillers have some kind of gun fight, or weapons, or other violence of some sort. This one brushes up against that edge, but never crosses the line, showing us how much is actually accomplished in the real world without firing a gun. There's the threat of death, and it's definitely a prevalent feeling, but this story focuses entirely on the relationships that Park Suk-young established and how he got caught in the middle of this Korean "political vortex". It's one of my favorite spy thrillers I've encountered in a while, and I'm still thinking about it days later. Always the sign of something outstanding.
Alex's Sitges 2018 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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