Few spies have got as close to the head of an enemy state as the Black Venus did in North Korea during the 90s. Posing as a disgruntled South Korean businessman, and former military officer, who wants to film advertisements for Southern products in the North, Park Suk-young’s operation took him all the way to leader Kim Jong-il. His story is now presented in The Spy Gone North, an espionage thriller that examines the operative’s mission in the North, as well as his discovery of the collective effort by officials on both sides to rig elections in the South.
The film feels rather timely, given the historic summit between the North’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in and their pledge to work towards complete nuclear disarmament. Directed by Yoon Jong-bin, the drama follows Park (played by Hwang Jung-min) as he builds up a network of connections in the North from Beijing, particularly with high-ranking official Ri Myung-un (Lee Sung-min). As he gains influence in Pyongyang, Park must keep his wits about him and maintain character as he deals with intense confrontations, double agents, and more close calls than you can shake a stick at.
At the helm of the film is the enigmatic Hwang Jung-min, who is a powerhouse in the lead role. He exudes charm as the Black Venus and presents a remarkable poker face even when his character is threatened -on multiple occasions- with a gun to his head. Ju Ji-hoon’s military officer Jung Moo-taek is a skilled adversary, and Ji-hoon excels in the villainous role, while Gi Ju-bong, who plays Kim Jong-il, portrays him in a way that’s both ominous and surprisingly comical. But it is the bond between Hwang Jung-min and Lee Sung-min’s characters that proves to be the most compelling, as the two men do everything they can for their countries.
Both actors show a remarkable talent for presenting the most nuanced of emotions, and their performances are further enhanced by Yoon’s keen eye for detail, as well as the film’s slick cinematography. Despite director Yoon’s claim that even foreigners without a functional understanding of Korea’s history in the late 20th century can follow along with the film, it doesn’t seem as simple as that. While not impossible to follow, there are scenes that viewers with prior knowledge will truly be able to appreciate.
This is particularly true of the part of the story that surrounds the election of Kim Dae-jung, and the lengths the North and South go to in order to stop him from becoming President. It’s trying to understand why they’re so determined to oppose him that proves the most troublesome and, although the film does provide some form of explanation, it feels like just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, this also seems deliberate, as Yoon appears resolute in there being no hand-holding throughout the film, which is both appealing and challenging.
This is a film that benefits from multiple viewings to catch and appreciate every little detail — even if it’s as small as hitting a plate to perfectly time, and shield, the noise of a tape recorder being switched. With strong performances from its two leads, as well as from the supporting cast, The Spy Gone North proves to be a fascinating spy thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seats. The fact that it’s a true story only serves to make it that much more gripping.
The Spy Gone North is available on digital download now.