Review: North Korean refugee or spy? Right now, he’s ‘The Suspect’

Gong Yoo in "The Suspect."

Twenty thousand North Koreans flee Kim Jong Un’s Communist regime every year. The possibility that a few of the defectors who settle in the South might be sleeper agents was the premise of 1999’s “Shiri,” South Korea’s first Hollywood-style action movie. The spy thriller “The Suspect” exploits that same anxiety about welcoming North Korean refugees but displays much grander ambitions than its predecessor.

The murder of an aging corporate executive sets in motion the hunt for Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo), a former North Korean spy who has made Seoul his new home. Before South Korean intelligence can catch up to him, Ji must enlist a fellow North Korean exile (Kim Sung-kyun) to find his lost family.

But “The Suspect” pulls off a bait-and-switch; this popcorn flick is also a political allegory about South Korea as a country so corrupt that its leaders line their pockets by endangering its citizenry’s well-being. As the elaborate plot reveals itself, exposing new villains, the film remains steeped in antigovernment paranoia.

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Director Won Shin-yeon’s frenetic camerawork is so urgent and nervous that it sometimes muddies clarity, a sin more forgivable during the many fight scenes than the blink-and-miss-it exposition. But the two stunning set pieces, both involving car chases, are so inspired and teeth-grittingly determined that they make the case for the possibility of individual heroism in a harrowingly venal world.


“The Suspect.”

MPAA rating: None. In Korean with English subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes.

Playing: At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles.