The comic book origins of the story are never more apparent than in the clashing final confrontation scenes of Secretly, Greatly, Chul-soo Jang’s action-comedy-drama about North Korean super spies. The different cinematic requirements of drama and action are kept in check until the final 20 minutes, when they stumble over each other, making for a relatively disappointing finish to an otherwise entertaining film.
Secretly, Greatly set box office records for South Korean films when it opened two years ago, and it is not difficult to see why. Chul-soo Jang inherited a good story from the web-comic, Covertly, and turned it into a three-fer genre blender of action-comedy-drama. The combination isn’t unusual per se. Most action films have funny moments, and of course, seriously tormented action-heroes have been with us for decades. There are slightly different requirements of each genre that usually can be brushed over without changing the tone of the film. We don’t normally notice the dissonance. That isn’t the case in Secretly, Greatly, because the movie is so sharply divided into two acts: a comedy with action sequences in the first half and a thriller-drama-martial arts film in the second half. If the characters were not the same, we probably wouldn’t recognize them as parts of the same film.
Secretly Greatly tells the story of three spies from an elite unit of the North Korean army sent into the south to await missions to aid in reunification. They are trained to be assassins and saboteurs. If they are lucky, they will have missions to complete for the state, but for the most part, they are to wait. Soo-hyun Kim plays the lead character, a high ranking spy named Lieutenant Won, who is placed in a poor sector of Seoul. His co-spies are Hae-rang Rhee (Ki-woong Park) and Hai-Jin Rhee (Hyun-woo Lee), placed in the same neighborhood as a struggling pop-star and a bullied high school student. Each have gone through training in North Korea to create self-sufficient monsters, as Lt. Won puts it. Their only loyalty is to the Republic and their training and roles have been designed to prevent bonds growing between them and with other people. Forming relationships that might interfere with their duties constitutes treason.
The comedy of the first part is largely due to the responses of these spies to the boredom of being placed without orders. While one might think the life of a spy is glamorous, these three are so dangerous that no one seems to trust them to carry out espionage. Their new identities have been designed to keep them estranged from others in the community through constant humiliation. Lt. Won is given instructions on playing a complete idiot, down to the number of times per month he must fall down the stairs and be caught by his neighbors defecating in the streets. Hae-rang must go to auditions for various TV shows as a musician, even though he does not know how to play a guitar and sing. And Hae-jin as a high school student must allow himself to be bullied so much that he must seek protection from the sector’s incompetent tough guy. Our spies in the fish-out-of-water comedy are supposed to remain that way for a purpose- daily humiliation is a constant reminder that they need to hold their neighbors in contempt and mirrors the vicious demoralizing training they received in the North.
It is an interesting choice to present the contrasts between North and South in terms of family and social roles and humiliation. For us westerners, the contrast and choices between the two places would be materially obvious – one country is prosperous and free and the other is not. But for Hun, the author of the comic on which the movie is based, that contrast is found in the ability to have normal family ties and the lure of the South is that one can have them without someone threatening to take them away. The metaphor for the tragic division of North and South in Korea has always been one of familial separation and that metaphor works its way through the narrative as Lt. Won regularly writes letters to his mother which he cannot send. But even with his relations as Won still firmly tied to the Republic and home, as Dong-gu, the fool, he slowly finds himself drawn into other relationships and neighborhood dramas. Even in the poor section of the city, where complete ideal Confucian families are hard to come by (every family in Secretly, Greatly is incomplete in some significant way), we sense that after two years, Lt. Won has the most normal relations he has since he started training, even though he has to play a fool to keep them.
No contrast in the relationships possible in the North and South is clearer than the ones between the three spies themselves. We are regularly given flashbacks to their training in the North. Any sign of emotional attachment is met with violence reactions. Won and Hae-rang are the bitterest of rivals. But over time in the South they become friends. The much younger Hae-jin admires Lt. Won and always has. But in the North, expressing that admiration gets Hae-jin stabbed in a hazing ritual. In the South, he finds a Lt. Won who can serve as a proper mentor and older brother who desires to protect him from the consequences of being a spy.
Secretly, Greatly takes a sudden darker turn in the second act. For those used to consistent tone throughout a film, this may not be the film for you. The first part of the film merely serves to develop the identity dilemmas in the spies that will be brought to tragic and highly dramatic conclusion in the much darker second half. The spies finally get their orders after years of waiting, but the heroic mission isn’t what they expected. Instead of assasination, they are ordered to commit honorable suicide or face execution. The identity crisis that was building in the comedy is thrown into a full blown existential crisis in the second half, in which the the spies need to figure out whether they should live and fight and explore the meaning of dying with honor. While the identity issues of the first half could be discussed with internal monologue while staring at the clouds, the second half is much more direct, questioning the choices Lt. Won has for trying to live while he is fighting the various forces sent to capture him.
The second act of Secretly, Greatly becomes confusing as various parties start looking for the spies to either kill them or stop them from killing themselves. The colonel in charge of their secret corps (the menacing Hyun-joo Son) is dispatched to ensure that they carry out their orders. He brings one set of thugs with him (along with the dreary North Korean weather). North Korean spies outside of the secret corps are also looking for them. There is a renegade defector leading a subset of South Korean intelligence who are trying to arrest them. A SWAT team arrives, although I’m not certain who they work for. The spies need to fight their way through all of them, even as they no longer know why they fight and their reasons for not committing suicide are taken from them.
The second act could be a heady experience, but it is a little much, if you ask me. Too many parties, doing too many similar things, with too many pauses in the action so that Soo-hyun can have internal monologues, while other people stand around waiting for him to get his mental focus back when they probably should be taking advantage of his mental break down to attack him.
Soo-Hyun Kim shows wide acting range as Lt. Won and Hyun-woo Lee is effective at pulling off the much more limited Hae-Jin. Their pairing as brothers is important to the impact of the finale, and it carries enough presence to be touching. However much we feel for them, the dramatic loss of their final acts are undermined by the screenplay and direction which seems intent on following the comic book source to the letter. In comics, it really isn’t a problem to have a psychological drama and action sequences running simultaneously. There are useful devices in the comic code to marry images and internal dialog together across several static images. In film, that issue is more difficult, since the time sequencing needed to establish and explain the internal drama run counter to the needs of filming fluid action sequences. There are just too many dramatic pauses, shot in slow motion to break action time sequences. Director Jang understands that Secretly, Greatly is more of an identity drama than an action film, so if there is a conflict between the two, the action stops, but I found the attempted marriage a little phony. It just didn’t seem plausible that the characters would stop fighting to reflect on their lives.