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Review: A double agent, nuclear weapons and election meddling in taut South Korean thriller ‘The Spy Gone North’

Review: A double agent, nuclear weapons and election meddling in taut South Korean thriller ‘The Spy Gone North’
Hwang Jung-min in "The Spy Gone North." (CJ Entertainment)

There are no spies who “dump” or “shag” anyone here, much less jump out of airplanes or buildings, but “The Spy Gone North,” based on the exploits of a true-life double agent code-named Black Venus, remains a taut, slowly engrossing, effectively old-fashioned Cold War thriller.

Niftily directed by Yoon Jong-bin, who co-wrote with Kwon Sung-hui, the film tracks the seemingly impossible mission of Park Suk-young (Hwang Jung-min), a former South Korean military officer recruited in 1993 by his country’s National Intelligence Service to infiltrate North Korea’s upper echelon. The goal: to obtain information about a newly reported nuclear program.

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The movie largely shuttles between Beijing and Pyongyang (Taiwan and South Korea subbed) as Park, posing as a brash businessman seeking trade deals with the North, wends his way to North Korean power broker Ri Myong-un (Lee Sung-min). Sparked by Park’s opportune proposal, Ri sets a meeting with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il (a crafty turn by Gi Ju-bong), who agrees to a unique arrangement involving advertising shoots. But obstacles ensue and secrets unfold, especially as election meddling arises.

Park and Ri’s evolving friendship adds depth and humanity to this timely, ambitious tale which boldly reflects some of the region’s more unsettling aspects. Eerily vivid re-creation of Jong-il’s insular, lockstep-oriented world, plus a stirring score by Cho Young-Wuk, are highlights.

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‘The Spy Gone North’

In Korean with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 10, CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles; CGV Cinemas, Buena Park

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