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‘Secretly Greatly’ Movie Review – is great

‘Secretly Greatly’ Movie Review – is great

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Secretly Greatly
Written by Kim Bang-hyun, Yoo Hong-gee
Directed by Jang Cheol-soo
South Korea, 2013

As with many historically resonant political-military confrontations, the now 63 year old rivalry between South and North Korea has served as inspiration for a bevy of cinematic projects. Among some of the more recent endeavors were Joint Security Area from Park Chan-wook from 2000 and Poonsang from 2011, Jhun Jai-hong. Both were rather serious in tone and tried to engage audiences with gritty, unrelenting drama and action derived from the long standing Cold War tensions. Secretly Greatly, from  Jang Cheol-soo, puts a different spin on North-South relations, utilization the spy genre to produce a movie that offers action, character-focused drama and even humour.

Won Ryu-han (Kim Soo-hyun)  is a spy for the north, trained at a very young age to become a vicious , ruthlessly effective killer in service of his glorious homeland. Secretly Greatly opens with Ryu-han living in a modest southern town, pretending to blend into is surroundings by putting on an act as the neighborhood idiot, toiling away at a corner store. In truth, he awaits further instructions from his superiors back home. Reconnaissance is one thing, but surely the there is something greater in store for someone of his skill apart from being a living joke for all who mock his very convincing stupidity. When his government eventually deems that the program which sent Ryu-han and his colleagues like Hae-rang (Park Ki-woon)  and Hae-jin (Son Hyeon-joo) to the south should be terminated, the protagonist unwillingly finds himself in the position to die for his country, although he may be having second thoughts.

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Curiously, Secretly Greatly may remind some of another South Korean film covered for this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, Confession of Murder. Both tell considerably different stories which highlight different themes, yet both try to weave their respective plots using astonishingly different genres and tones. In a classic case proving that predicting if the quality of one film correlates with the the quality of another can be a futile excercise, Secretly Greatly is much more adept at juggling its multiple identities than is Confession of Murder even though on the whole the latter is still a decent film.

The single most important reason why that is rests with the films’s understanding of how its various sections work, always dealing with each individually before moving on to the next. For all intents and purposes, the first third is both a slapstick and dark comedy, with the protagonist constantly demonstrating his clumsiness and apparent cluelessness to those who tease and berate him. His pathetic outer shell keenly hides the inner hatred Ryu-han feels towards his southern neighbours. His thought process, related to the audience through narration, reveals just how often Ryu-han thinks of how easy it would be to kill all those who take him to be a fool. Kim Soo-hyun is spectacular in the role, fully capable of giving his character a multifaceted identity. He can be funny just as he can offer some healthy dramatic chops. Just as spies need be chameleons, so does Kim prove his own diversity and range.

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Through this first section there is an underlying sense of danger and restlessness on the part of the hero and his government back home. Ryu-han is increasingly desperate to be awarded a more worthy task than playing stupid, while back across the DMZ zone his superiors begin to question the legitimacy of the mole  operation, but without taking the matter lightly. If the mission is sunk, the agents will actually have to kill themselves…or be killed, depending on their willingness to comply after years spent living in the decadent south. Therefore, while the audience is encouraged to laugh heartily at several of Ryu-han’s antics, the film makes it clear there is something more sinister is transpiring behind the scenes. This bleeds into the second portion wherein the threat of liquidation makes itself known to the trio of northern spies, sending the picture into more dramatic territory than comedic. Perhaps predictably, Ryu-han eventually comes to understand that some of the people he has duped for two years, most notably the shop owner where he works and her adult son, do in fact appreciate him.

Finally, the three spies choose to abandon protocol and fight their North Korean assassins once the decision is taken to end the program. This concluding chapter is all drama, featuring a very drawn out action sequence in which Ryu-hah and Hae-rang fight off their assailants in an under construction high rise on an extremely rainy day. This is no harmless, PG-13 action sequence either. Bones are cracked and people are shot dead. Kudos to director Jang Cheol-soo for capably changing the movie’s tone from comedic to intensely serious in such a way that it feels completely organic. The only seemingly false steps taken are in the dying moments when, contrary to what is usually the case in Korean cinema, the filmmakers go overboard with the tear jerker scenes with painfully obvious attempts at trying to have the audience sob. Apart from that, Secretly Greatly genuinely has one heck of a finale that should impress most viewers.

With a great cast, fantastic pacing and an unexpected story structure, Secretly Greatly stands apart from the sea of espionage adventures in which agents are betrayed by their superiors and as such are forced to fight for their survival. Jang Cheol-soo’s picture does in fact borrow from said blueprint but at the same time firmly stamps its own imprint.

-Edgar Chaput


The Fantasia Film Festival celebrates 15 years and runs from July 18th to August 7th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official website for the Fantasia Film Festival.

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