The Spy Gone North (Gongjak)
“Based on real events” – hardly are those words out when a vast film of folly and tedium troubles the sight of this reviewer. Bombastic yet boring, expository yet senseless, Yoon Jong-Bin’s Gongjak is an achingly derivative spy thriller about frictions on the Korean peninsula. No secret service gimmick is withheld, no effort to manufacture tension missed. That it is rooted in real 1990s espionage makes the narrative and stylistic choices more perplexing: surely an intelligent thriller could be made of this?
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) recruits former army officer Park Suk-young – codename: Black Venus – to infiltrate top North Korean government agents in Beijing. As we all are, the NIS is worried about the North’s developing nuclear capacity. Park (Hwang Jung-Min) gets close to the director Ri (Lee Sung-Min), as both seek a de-escalation of tensions between their respective motherlands. Noticeably, countries are the only females identified throughout.
It’s skillfully, conventionally made yet somehow guileless, the editing choppy, the dialogue simplistic and endless. There’s so much talking and yet so little insight. North and South, communism and capitalism, politics as a murky business, money as a driver of both democracy and dictatorship: yes, got all that. But why is this interesting and how does this motivate the characters? Nobody has anything close to an internal life, a hidden richness among the political machinations. Perhaps that’s what working for the state does to you.
There are some amusing scenes with Kim Jong-il, and we glimpse the new wee despot in a hilariously ornate portrait. Comic moments pepper the film, in fact, as Park’s guise in the North is that of a gauche, inferior, energetic business type, the sort of man who wears ill-fitting beige suits at motivational seminars. Park and Ri’s relationship develops somewhat oddly, consummated by tacky mementoes and vaguely lustful gazes.
The thawing of Korean tensions is a timely, fascinating topic and we glimpse the equivocal positioning, the fraught necessity of political engagement. But these considerations are swept away through hackneyed tropes: newspaper printing presses, fiddly wire-tapping, game-playing gun-toting. The conversations of gravitas, the thundering score: it’s as if Jong-Bin is making up for a lack of genuine threat. A more subversive, perceptive work may have mitigated this concern, but in the rush to drama it slouches towards Pyongyang to be born.
The Spy Gone North (Gongjak) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for The Spy Gone North (Gongjak) here: