Secretly Greatly

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/13 13:19:12

"Decently Confusedly."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It happens all the time: An action-comedy starts out funny, but when building to a climax, the action so completely takes over that the thing that got the audience hooked at the beginning is almost completely lost. "Secretly Greatly" is one of the most extreme examples of this tendency, as the filmmakers take enjoyable slapstick and morph it into something much uglier than it needs to be.

Won Ryu-hwan (Kim Soo-hyun) was recruited for North Korea's 5446 unit as a child, trained to become the ultimate killing machine, and then smuggled into the outskirts of Seoul, where he poses as Bang Dong-gu, the poor neighborhood's village idiot. Only the local postman (Ko Chang-seok), a fellow sleeper agent who has been there for sixteen years, knows his true identity. After two years, a new pair of agents show up: Lee Hae-rang (Park Ki-woong), a general's son given a blond dye job and told to take a TV talent competition by storm, and Ri Hae-jin (Lee Hyun-woo), a diminutive high-school kid. And then orders finally come...

Well, at that point things become a mess. Suddenly, what had been a pleasantly aimless story is given an injection of high-level politics, a whole bunch of new characters are injected into the story and the various townsfolk the movie has spent the past hour making into a fun ensemble is pushed to the side. It becomes just a matter of people trying to kill each other, with the core group of sleepers trying to help each other survive. It's a massive, jarring tone shift that feels like a bait-and-switch, and what's worse is, this second part doesn't even seem to carry over the themes that the movie had been building for the first hour-plus: Won becoming a part of this community versus the one he left is given pretty perfunctory treatment so that he can go off and get into gunfights.

Which is a real pity, because the first half is a lot of fun. Kim Soo-hyun has a natural gift for slapstick, and director Jang Shul-soo and his co-writers make great use of it: Not only will Kim gamely throw himself down a set of stairs, but he'll shift his body language and motion from capable super-spy to doofus and back again. And for as mean-spirited as the gags where folks torment Dong-gu might be, the voice-overs of how he could snap these brats like twigs or how this would never happen in the North are great responses, with two years of pent-up frustration hitting the ears even when just reading subtitles. Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo are nearly as much fun as the laid-back guy discovering that the army doesn't really teach you how to rock and the grimly lethal kid. The ensemble around them gets both laughs and affection, especially Park Hye-sook as the outwardly cranky convenience store owner who took Dong-gu in when she saw him on the street.

And taken on its own, the second half of the movie isn't terrible. The basic plot - spies disavowed and hunted by both the enemy and their own country - has served as the basis of a lot of serviceable action action movies, and both Son Hyun-joo as the group's commander/mentor and Kim Sung-kyun as the somewhat sympathetic ROK agent in charge of finding them are solid additions/returns. The action is pretty well choreographed. It's a thin story (although a Korean audience may take bits for granted that seem like huge issues to foreigners), and either the filmmakers or the author of the original webcomic "Covertness" seem to confuse death with depth as things head toward the end.

Admittedly, one of the exciting things about Korean films is that genre lines are often in different places and they can surprise in ways that Western films often don't. But as "Secretly Greatly" reached its end, I still couldn't imagine why the people who started a movie like THAT thought it should end like THIS; that the movie is massive hit in its native land puzzles me a bit. Just a bit - it's very funny when it's trying to be funny, and the action bits are good, and you could cut a great trailer for it, but it is less than the sum of its parts.

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