FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Korean Border Noir

In April 2013 I wrote a survey for CounterPunch on Korean War movies made by Koreans that included Jang Hoon’s The Front Line, about which I wrote:

Set during the final months of the war, soldiers from either side have not only grown war-weary; they have gotten into the habit of dropping off gifts to each other-like wine and cigarettes-at a designated secret store-box at the bottom of a bunker near the front lines.

This is the second reconciliation film directed by Jang Hoon. His “Secret Reunion”, a 2010 film I have not seen, is about former north and south Korean spies bonding together out of a shared interest.

The very good news is that “Secret Reunion” is now available on Netflix streaming. It is Korean filmmaking at its very best. If you are familiar with Korean film, that’s reason enough to check it out. If Hong Kong cinema has seen its day, you can make the case that Korea not only carries on in the grand tradition but also elevates it to a higher level.

If you have never seen a Korean action film, this is a good introduction since it has all the elements that make it irresistible: a real flair for character development, impeccable plotting, smartly choreographed fight scenes, and the uniquely Korean sense of humor. Above all this, the film is blessed by the casting of Kang-ho Song as Lee Han-kyu, the south Korean National Intelligence Service (their FBI) agent who bonds with a spy from the north. Song is generally cast as a crude bumbler brimming with self-confidence but at the same time supremely unaware of his limitations, almost veering into Inspector Clouseau territory. With his broad and homely features attached to a charismatic smile, his down-home Gyeongsang Province accent that might be roughly equivalent to a southern drawl for an American actor, Song occupies roughly the same place in Korean film that Jackie Chan does in Hong Kong films, an anti-hero capable of heroic action when the need arises (and often does.)

Dong-won Kang plays Song ji-Won, the north Korean spy. He is everything that Inspector Lee is not. He is feline, handsome, and with a mind like a steel trap, as well as one or two steps ahead of the hapless Lee. He is David Niven to Lee’s Peter Sellers.

The film opens with the Shadow, a senior north Korean assassin, and ji-Won working on their latest assignment: killing a “traitor” from the north and his wife. When the Shadow is about to kill their young son as well, ji-Won rescues the boy and manages to escape from Lee’s agents who have been forewarned in advance that a hit was about to take place. They are too late to save the lives of the defector and too incompetent to apprehend the Shadow and ji-Won who manage to make them look like the Keystone Cops. Who said that Communism doesn’t work?

Cashiered by the NIS for bungling the arrest, Lee starts a new career as the operator of a detective agency specializing in the return of runaway mail order wives from poorer Asian countries to their Korean husbands who have often given them reason aplenty to run away, including beatings. Like other socially conscious Korean directors, Jang Hoon is committed to using film as a weapon against the deep oppression of women in his society.

While on a raid of a factory owned by a Vietnamese businessman who is suspected of harboring runaway wives, Lee spots ji-Won who has taken a job there. Since he was suspected of tipping off the NIS, his superiors have washed their hands of him leaving him on his own, just as was the case for Lee. When a band of thugs at the factory looking after the boss’s interests begin pummeling Lee, ji-Won steps in and the two send them packing in one of the film’s many exhilarating fight scenes.

The two men recognize each other from the assassination but act as if they have never met. Ji-Wan of course is trying to hide his identity while Lee hopes to track down the members of his adversary’s spy network, not understanding that ji-Wan—like him—is out on his own.

Secret-Reunion

Impressed with ji-Wan’s fighting ability, Lee offers him as job with his detective agency. Ji-Wan, assuming that the detective agency was just a front for the NIS, takes the job in the hopes that he will uncover secrets of value to his comrades in the north. To keep an eye on ji-Wan, Lee invites him to crash at his apartment until he earns enough money to buy his own.

Once the two men begin sharing the same abode, you take a step back from action movie conventions into something that can be described as a mixture of “The Odd Couple” and commentary on north/south political and cultural differences. As we begin to find out more about Lee, we discover that he is cynical about the ideological excuses made for the division of Korea and hopes to track down the spy network simply for the cash reward and the chance to get his old job back.

Ji-Wan does take his ideology seriously even if circumstances prevent him from fully revealing his socialist convictions. Mostly they appear as objections to the way that Lee treats his runaway bride captives, arguing in one case against the need for handcuffs and in another against returning one to a man who freely admits that he is a wife-beater.

Ultimately, the differences between the two men begin to evaporate as they discover that they have been left dangling by their countrymen. Like many Korean films, the conclusion borders on sentimentality but that is a small price to pay for a film that is all heart. If you want misanthropic edginess and irony heaped on top of irony until you want to bolt from your seat in disgust, then stick to indie films made in the USA.

The two actors in the lead roles are absolutely magnificent. As Lee Han-kyu, Kang-ho Song is as convincing as ever—a mark no doubt of his non-professional origins. In a profile on Kang-ho Song that appeared in the December 27, 2012 Korea Times, Jeon Pyeung-kuk, a film critic and Kyonggi University professor, was quoted: “He just disappears into his role. He can be a detective, an anonymous middle-class father, a face reader and lawyer. He is not your traditional, good-looking movie star, but he is what you really call an actor. His talent is prolonging his success because great directors such as Bong, Park and Kim Ji-woon are always eager to work with him.”

Oddly enough, if the Koreans ever see their way to reunify their nation, film will likely pay a role. Despite its reputation as a savagely Spartan state, the North has produced many fine films. Apparently the north is deeply angry over the pending release of “The Interview”, a “comedy” starring James Franco and Seth Rogen as celebrity TV journalists who after lining up an exclusive interview with Jong-un are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. Frankly, I would prefer to spend a year in North Korea’s harshest dungeon than sit through a film starring these two no-talent idiots.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail