Postcard: Seoul, by Darcy Paquet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 3:47pm

Spies infiltrated the South Korean film industry in 2013 - and the local people welcomed them.

The notion of spying may seem romantic to people in other countries, but since the Korean war in the 1950s, South Korea's media have been reporting incidents involving real spooks. Deadly confrontations took place throughout the 20th century on both sides of the border. Nor is this a thing of the past: Seoul claims to have arrested 49 North Korean spies since 2003.

In South Korean movies, the North's spies are menacing. Kang Je-gyu's Shiri (1999), about a team of North Korean agents planning a terrorist attack in Seoul, featured Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003) as a renegade bent on starting a new war. The plot of 2010 box office hit Secret Reunion centred on assassinations of defectors by North Korean spies.

Director Ryoo Seung-wan, after shooting Spies, a TV documentary about, well, spies in 2012, made The Berlin File, an action drama about North and South Korean agents in the German capital who are caught up in a deadly hunt when a weapons deal goes awry.

But recent spy films have taken a lighter approach: last year's Secretly Greatly is based on a popular webtoon about a North Korean spy who disguises himself as a country hick. The film, starring Kim Soo-hyun, took 48.7 billion won (HK$356 million) at the local box office. Also doing well in South Korean cinemas this winter is action extravaganza The Suspect, which features Gong Yoo as a North Korean agent framed for murder.

Both films play off the star power of their male leads, who portray spies betrayed by their North Korean superiors. Neither work makes much of an attempt to instill a sense of realism into their stories, using the espionage theme as a motivation for action setpieces and sentimental drama.

Two South Korean spy films are in Hong Kong cinemas this month. Action movie Commitment features K-pop star Choi Seung-hyun (stage name T.O.P., of boy band Big Bang) as a young Northerner whose father fails in an espionage mission to the South. After he and his sister are sent to a labour camp, he volunteers for a mission that takes him across the 38th parallel. Although not a huge hit at home, the film still made 7 billion won.

Lee Seung-jun's The Spy: Undercover Operation has superstar Sol Kyung-gu playing an elite South Korean agent who keeps his job secret from his suspicious wife, played by Moon So-ri. They end up in Thailand, entangled in a plot involving a genius North Korean nuclear physicist. Released domestically last September, this action comedy which reunited the male and female leads of Lee Chang-dong's far more serious Peppermint Candy (1999) and Oasis (2002) did not impress critics, but still brought in 24.5 billion won at the box office.

So why the sudden flood of spy movies? One simple reason has to do with money. South Korean film companies have their eyes set on the international market, and certain types of films tend to appeal to foreign distributors more than others. The action genre is traditionally an easy sell, and the fraught relationship between North and South Korea is a familiar topic for viewers in other countries. Sure enough, many of these recent spy movies have been picked up by film companies around the world.

These recent movies also reflect general attitudes among South Koreans towards the North. Whereas there used to be an element of real danger in the cinematic depictions of North Korean spies, recent films feel more distant from reality, closer to James Bond than to the evening news. Indeed, North Korea often feels like a distant country.

The threat posed by North Korea is now well into its seventh decade, and in polls younger South Koreans show little desire for reunification. Whereas in the 1990s belligerent language and action from the North caused panic across the border, such hostility has now grown drearily familiar. "Aren't you nervous about North Korea?" foreign journalists ask passersby in Seoul, often to be greeted with a snort of derision: "Why should we take them seriously?"

South Korean movies seem to be taking the same attitude.

Commitment is playing in cinemas; The Spy: Undercover Operation opens on Thursday