62nd BFI London Film Festival: The Spy Gone North Review

The historical drama is a tale that is constantly over-shadowed by its real-life counterpart’s undoing. No matter which way the film may elude to direct itself, the foreboding presence of certain real-life individuals makes clear to an audience which way the film will steer. This is especially the case when dealing with the infamous Kim Jong-Il, whose tyrannical actions are known throughout the world. An audience watching a film dealing with a subject like North Korea will constantly be anticipating the introduction of the oppressive supreme leader. There are two ways to deal with this problem in a film, to ignore it, leading an audience along as if they were blind to the final outcome, or for a film to use its infamous ending to its own advantage. To take, at least in the case of The Spy Gone North, the painfully brutal conclusion of history’s trajectory and use it as a looming sense of doom and suspense for the audience to suffocate in.


The Spy Gone North is based on the true events of Park Seok-Young (Hwang Jung-min), aka code-name ‘Black Venus’, a South Korean spy who went undercover to try and seek out North Korea’s nuclear weapons plans in the 90s. Park does this by disguising himself as a bumbling and undeniably likable businessman attempting to make deals with Northern officials. Alike the historical film, spy films are often shrouded in their own cynicism. Unless you’re dealing with the more fantasy-pining and optimistic James Bond or Austin Powers, espionage films tend to never end well for their protagonists. Often dealing with a character left with an impossible task, that they are dealing with single-handedly, assigned to them by a neglectful government who are ready to cut all ties with them the moment they slip into troubled water. The Spy Gone North is no stranger to this. Dealing with an incredibly heavy subject matter, that is still relevant today, it doesn’t attempt to depict its protagonist’s mission as heroic or nation-saving. Instead, Yoon Jong-Bin strives to portray the complex and jenga-like relationship between the North and South; depicting how power-play in politics can stagger any progression between the two nations.

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The film is incredibly dialogue heavily and based a lot on Seok-Young’s relationships with North Korean officials and his integration into their playing fields of politics. Frankly, my attention span is one that can become easily strained by long films, but I was gripped by this 137-minute epic. The Spy Gone North is a film smothered in fear and impending dread. Seok-Young’s progressions and victories with his newfound allies above the border only drags him deeper and deeper into a convoluted pit of danger. The dialogue is sharp, witty and understanding of how to smoothly arise tension. Admittedly, my knowledge of Korean history is fundamental at best. However, the film is easy to follow for outsiders to Korean politics and unearths a whole mound of historical foul-play on both sides of the DMZ that will be sure to grip anyone new to the subject matter.

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It’s a film that knows better than to root itself in cheap, badly-timed emotional sagas for the sake of an audience’s reaction, but when it does hit those emotional moments, it sure does pack a punch. Knowing exactly how to peel away at the hard exterior of authoritative states to reveal a politics of fear and desperation, The Spy Gone North knows exactly how to play on trepidation, deceit and intimidation. Sprouting a powerless loss of hope from the most unsuspecting of places, Yoon serves up the most damaging effects of unquestionable and inescapable power-structures.

Rating: 4-stars

Written by Abi Aherne

All photos © CJ Entertainment

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