Film Review: The Spy Gone North

Yoon Jong-bin’s espionage drama The Spy Gone North is an engaging and elucidating watch, even though it sags slightly in the middle third. 

In the early 1990s, it is reported that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) decide to task an agent with infiltrating the North Korean regime, to get a better picture of their nuclear capabilities…

Based on the actual testimony of a South Korean secret agent, The Spy Gone North is a thriller about the small and the large scale. Focusing on a lone agent and his attempts to infiltrate the upper echelons in North Korea, the film is as much about the political climate as it is about the specifics of the operation. 

The film quickly establishes the background of the protagonist before turning its attention to the mission at hand. A significant portion of the film concentrates on Park Suk-young’s attempts to meet the right people. There are some tense moments when it seems as if his cover will be blown, but The Spy Gone North does not fit the classic spy thriller mould. Instead of high-intensity action sequences, the film concentrates on the procedural and political wrangling. This means a drop in momentum; in the middle section, the pace slows to concentrate on South Korea’s political plans.

Nevertheless, viewers are rewarded with a fascinating final third. The conclusion of the film is taut and apprehensive, as the fates of both the South Korean election and of Park lie in the balance. What also develops in the second half is the friendship between Park and an unlikely ally. The friendship represents doing what is right for the greater good, rather than the good of their political allegiances. Whilst the very ending is a little contrived, this relationship is rewarding to watch.

Production values in the film are good, with locations looking every inch like Pyongyang. The art direction creates very distinct looks for Seoul, Beijing, and Pyongyang, highlighting the contrast between locales. Hwang Jung-min offers a solid performance as Park Suk-young, whilst Lee Sung-min is well cast as the stoic Ri.

Particularly for those unfamiliar with South Korean politics, The Spy Gone North is a revealing picture. Despite a sluggish section, viewers are compensated by a great finale.

The Spy Gone North is being screened at BFI London Film Festival in October 2018. The film is available on Digital HD from 22nd October 2018.

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