Spies and secret agents became staples of the movies right from the start - particularly in the films of German genre-master Fritz Lang - and sparked something of a phenomenon in the early 60s, when the Ian Fleming pulp hero James Bond hit the big screen.
In the real world, few spies have ever gotten within spitting distance to the leader of an enemy state - let alone one as dangerous as North Korea - like Black Venus, a.k.a. Park Chae-seo.
‘The Spy Gone North’, the latest film from director and co-writer Yoon Jong-bin (‘Kundo: Age Of The Rampant’), is loosely based on the true story of Park, a former South Korean agent who infiltrated North Korea's nuclear facilities. Set across a few years of the 1990s, it follows a loyal South Korean secret agent named Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min, ‘The Battleship Island’, ‘The Wailing’), who is assigned to infiltrate North Korea by his handler, the politically adroit Choi Hak-sung (Cho Jin-woong, ‘The Handmaiden’). After befriending a Chinese nuclear physicist of Korean ancestry who reveals that the North had made two low-level nuclear warheads, Park attempts to gain even more information on the DPRK’s weapons program.
Black Venus operates mostly out of Beijing, where the two countries send their top officials to feel each other out. We watch as he carefully establishes his cover as an amoral, greedy South Korean businessman and establishes friendships with stoney-faced North Korean officials, bribing his way up the ladder with top-quality counterfeit Rolex watches. Black Venus eventually pitches a lucrative deal in which South Korean companies pay to shoot commercials within North Korea, giving him an excuse to “scout” for locations in the country.
‘The Spy Gone North’ isn’t a neck-breaking, gadget-laden spy action film of the ‘Jason Bourne’ or ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ variety. Even Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is more action-packed. It’s more of a political thriller (in the same vein as Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s ‘The Realm’) about the murky connections - some financial, some political - that run across the Demilitarised Zone dividing the peninsula. For most of the film, we watch Park meeting various characters and managing his delicate relationships with the dangerous men he’s embedded himself with. Particularly intimidating are security official Jung (Ju Ji-hoon, ‘Asura: The City of Madness’) and, accompanied by a fluffy little white dog, Kim Jong Il (Gi Ju-bong, ‘Grass’).
Along with impressively slick cinematography via Choi Chan-min and some convincing production design, the film provides some fascinating insights into Korean history following the Cold War.
Much of the movie takes place around 1997, when liberal candidate Kim Dae-Jung won South Korea’s presidency against fierce opposition from conservatives. The film depicts how Black Venus’ boss and other conservative officials colluded with North Korea to thwart Kim’s chances. Meanwhile, the spy begins to question the men he serves even as they begin to view him as a liability...
Initially, it seems like the minimal personal backstory that we’re given for Park is a detriment to the film. How are we supposed to become attached to a character we know next to nothing about? But this allows Hwang to focus on the chameleonic qualities of Black Venus without distracting the audience from the swiftly moving machinations of the plot.
The final act of the film deepens Park’s relationship with the official who directs North Korea’s foreign exchange operations, Ri Myung Woon (an excellent Lee Sung-min, ‘The Witness’). A surprisingly stirring tale of sympathetic goals, duelling ideologies and unlikely friendships emerges, as well as a poignant argument in favour of better relations between North and South Korea.
Along with impressively slick cinematography via Choi Chan-min and some convincing production design (Taipei standing in for Beijing and North Korea), the film provides some fascinating insights into Korean history following the Cold War and the transition from a tightly-controlled to a more democratic South Korea. You don’t need to know much about Korean politics to enjoy ‘The Spy Gone North’; you only need an appreciation for political intrigue and tension-inducing filmmaking in general.