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.
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.