The Spy Gone North film review: fact-based espionage drama recalls exploits of South Korean secret agent
Based on the true story of a general in the 1990s who must win the trust of North Korea’s leaders and assess its nuclear weapons programme, the film has an authentic sense of time and place and humanises its protagonists
Based on the exploits of South Korean secret agent “Black Venus”, Yoon Jong-bin’s The Spy Gone North details how army general Park Suk-young (played by Hwang Jung-min) brokered a bogus advertising deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in order to document his burgeoning nuclear weapons programme.
The film is set in the run-up to the landmark 1997 election in South Korea that ended 36 years of conservative rule. Park masquerades as an opportunistic businessman who must win the trust of North Korea’s highest officials.
This puts him in direct contact with Kim (playfully portrayed by Gi Ju-bong) and under the heavy scrutiny of North Korean finance minister Ri Myung-woon (Lee Sung-min) and security official Jong (Ju Ji-hoon).
Capturing a richly authentic sense of time and place, The Spy Goes North appears to include an impressive amount of location footage shot in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The brutalist grandeur of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun stands in stark contrast to the desperate poverty Park witnesses when chauffeured outside Kim’s sheltered domain.
These scenes are compounded as he encounters political subterfuge on both sides of the 38th parallel dividing North from South Korea.
Rather than strive for a James Bond-style spy caper, Yoon explores his characters’ patriotic motivations, and in the process humanises many of the film’s primary antagonists, while exposing endemic corruption in South Korean politics. Thankfully these moments are countered by some expertly executed sequences of high-stakes espionage, balancing the film’s even-handed politics with similarly assured thrills.
The Spy Gone North opens on September 6
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