Won Ryu Hwan had been raised and trained as a killing machine by the DPRK. A respectable lieutenant, he was then sent as a sleeper agent to the South, where he had to pose as a local village idiot by the name of Bang Dong Gu. Donned in his green tracksuits with a little bit of snot coming out of his nostrils, he makes sure to stay in character at all times, either by falling over several flight of stairs or defecating in public spaces. Two years have passed and yet there is still no word from the higher ups. Yet all of a sudden, two fellow agents come to his neighborhood—Lee Hae Rang, who was assigned to pass off as a rock musician, and Lee Hae Jin, posing as a common high school kid. The three bonded with one another and also with the town’s residents, and when the long-awaited command reaches them, a little seed of doubt prevents them from obeying it.
Secretly, Greatly is billed as an action-comedy and the hyphen really doesn’t do it justice because the first and second halves of the movie feel very separated. The movie opens with a serious mood, showcasing Won Ryu Hwan prior to his assignment to South Korea. The opening credits keep rolling and the movie takes a 180° turn, giving us a comedy flick for an hour. This includes a lot of slapstick humor involving Dong Gu stumbling over every few scenes and also him numerously getting thrown rocks at by the local neighborhood kids.
When the two new North Korean agents make an appearance, little action scenes are sparsely thrown here and there, but to be honest they can’t expect us to take them seriously, can they? These action scenes mainly display Kim Soo Hyun’s Ryu Hwan doing Edward Cullen-ish superhuman feats, jumping easily from one building to another. It’s Parkour, basically. With the utterly comical initial approach and the Parkour-like sequences, when the darker, more serious storyline of the second half kicks in, we are no way emotionally involved enough to care. This latter half also concentrates more on hand-to-hand combat scenes—there are so many of them—with over-the-top sound effects, like what you hear in most Chinese martial arts movies. Yes we know that the bones are breaking… except they really aren’t.
Now, it’s not like blending action and comedy never works, because it does work and has worked a lot of times before. Take Secret Reunion (Jang Hun, 2010) for example. It’s also about a North Korean spy in South Korea and has a lot of comedy combined with some action and drama, and boy does it work. You’re laughing in one moment and crying the next. Secret Reunion is as commercial as Korean movies go, yet without sacrificing the quality of its story, and it works.
‘Commercial’ seems to be on director Jang Cheol Soo’s mind when he took on the job, and he did that job well, with the movie currently holding the highest number of admissions in a single day in South Korea with 919,035 tickets. Jang was actually the assistant director to Kim Ki Duk in two of his films, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) and Samaritan Girl (2004). His feature film debut Bedevilled (2010) premiered at the International Critics Week in Cannes and went on to gain a lot of critical acclaims. Going from working as an assistant director to one of the most well-known, most controversial filmmakers of all time and debuting with a much-praised film, it seems quite odd that he chose to do this movie as his next step. Making things worse is how he said that he was “planning on returning to more artistic endeavors in the future” during a short speech he gave when the movie was screened at the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival in July. It seems like Jang himself knew that this one is a miss.
On a side note, what adds even more amusement to the experience of watching this movie is the barely-subtle slash content. Granted, it will surely be missed by most audience, but for my friend and me, the bromance between Ryu Hwan and Hae Jin is more than noticeable. It sure made us enjoy the movie a lot more than we should. Moreover, we were also not able to ignore Kim Soo Hyun’s impossible good looks. The 25 year-old actor started his career from musicals and TV, and without a doubt is one of the brightest young actors in South Korea today. In addition to being insanely good looking, Kim actually has what it takes to be a bona fide actor and it’s quite disappointing to hear that his next project will be another TV series. There aren’t too many actors his age that have that much talent in South Korea, so here’s hoping he will be given more chance to shine in the near future.
Secretly, Greatly is based on a popular webcomic series and it seems like it could really work as that, but as a movie it just feels lacking and unsure. Director Jang’s next project actually sounds more interesting—Serve the People, an erotic film based on a Chinese novel about the wife of a sexually handicapped general who has an affair with a young soldier. Well, it looks like Jang really is returning to his more artistic endeavors.