Secret Reunion (의형제, Jang Hoon: 2010)

An attempt to capture a North Korean spy by the National Intelligence Service (N.I.S.) goes badly and in the aftermath two men are dismissed by their agencies. The N.I.S. expel Agent Lee, an obsessive man happy to ignore protocol in order to do his job. The North Korean spy is also left on the run and in the cold as he finds himself disowned by his own agency.
Several years later the two men cross paths and pretend not to recognise each other, and while each tries to figure out a way to use the situation to his advantage a strange partnership emerges…

A thriller that’s also an unlikely buddy-flick, which has a serious tone but also big doses of humour. Secret Reunion does lots of things which, on the surface of it, we seem to have seen before – but it does all of these things, and more, in one big slick package. Sometimes crowd-pleasing blockbuster popcorn flicks can also be rewarding and clever cinema. Take The Host for example – it seemed to tick most of the right boxes for a lot of people. Now you can add Secret Reunion to that too-small list of films which hold up as a well made, well acted, well written slabs of big-screen fun.

Getting stuck right into the thick of things from the off, Secret Reunion opens with a great opening – the N.I.S. uncover some information that will potentially allow them to catch a North Korean spy. Without revealing anymore, the first twenty minutes of the film is classic stuff: chasing, ignoring orders, shouting, guns, fighting – it’s all of the exciting stuff that we expect from our spy thrillers. What’s even more exciting is that Secret Reunion then never tries to top its own cracking opening. Instead, after this has played out the film makes a sharp turn, changing pace into a slightly different style of film – something which I cannot explain here to its credit or without spoilers. So I won’t.

As one half of Secret Reunion‘s central pairing, Song Kang-ho – as is expected these days – gives another fantastic performance as dismissed N.I.S. agent Lee. Although on the surface it’s another typical Song Kang-ho role (Oh look, he’s playing the ‘frustrated-everyman’ again..) it never ceases to amaze me how he manages to wring another fully-rounded character out of material that, on the surface of it is starting to look very familiar – and still never seems to be repeating himself. As Lee makes the move from disgraced Agent to Private Investigator, he’s shown to epitomize the ideology of a selfish capitalist lifestyle – it’s (nearly) all about the money.

With Song Kang-ho providing the solid centre of the piece, it’s down to the other star of the show – Kang Dong-wan – to show off some acting chops in the more difficult role of the young North Korean spy, something which he does beautifully. Giving a multi-layered performance as the man pulled in different directions by – and struggling to deal with – family, politics, honour and friendship, Kang Dong-wan’s Han-gyu is a fascinating creation in such a mainstream movie. Straddling the line between different moral grounds and perceptions of ‘honour’ – which always works especially well on film – Han-gyu is the spy not-quite-in from the cold, a man who makes decisions based on his beliefs rather than to necessarily benefit himself. Put this character in a room alongside Song Kang-ho’s Lee and it’s easy to see how the sparks fly. The two actors work perfectly onscreen – the more colourful that Song Kang-ho plays Lee, the more intense and internally tormented that Kang Dong-wan’s Han-gyu appears to  become.

While Song Kang-ho gives Secret Reunion a certain level of humour (something which seems to be present in the majority, although not all, of his performances) it’s also found elsewhere throughout – especially in a sub-plot involving a Vietnamese gang boss. None of the jokes step over the line, but there’s a couple of very funny moments which on the face of it don’t seem like they should appear in a film like this – it’s good judgement though, as they’re shorthand for humanising characters who would otherwise need to do so in a different way, probably in dreaded melodrama, which is also thankfully avoided.

Secret Reunion has its fair share of gritty – and bloody – moments, and its central premise is taut with plenty of political and social tension, but it never forgets that its first intention is mass entertainment. While this means that it’s intelligently written and produced in it’s tackling of North / South relations, it doesn’t reach for some of the more uncomfortable areas found in the likes of J.S.A. – instead falling along the slightly more cautious lines of Shiri or Welcome To Dongmakgol.

For a ‘big’ film it’s refreshingly – and in the best way – small

Secret Reunion has so far been the biggest Korean release domestically in 2010 and it’s not hard to see why. With two of Korea’s biggest stars in a thriller dealing with North / South Korean issues, that’s certainly a good starting place to build interest in a blockbuster movie. What’s very interesting then is how Secret Reunion starts with a big bang, but then becomes a smaller more intimate story – and it’s all the better for it. While the plot pushes on through it’s different acts, after the opening scenes Secret Reunion really does focus down in its two central men, managing not to lose sight of them in the plot twists and action scenes. For a ‘big’ film it’s refreshingly – and in the best way – small. In terms of the filmmaking there’s very little to complain about – the film looks great and the cinematography and editing is beautifully ‘hands-off’ (there’s little of the Bourne-style shaky-cam). With only a couple of moments that the film slips into bog-standard – an unnecessary midway montage plus the cack-handed very final scenes, but we’ll happily overlook them for the larger picture – and Secret Reunion happily and confidently rolls on through to its final credits with ease. As only the second film from director Jang Hoon, it screams of potential for future projects – and I’ll be picking up a copy of his acclaimed debut Rough Cut as soon as possible.

Secret Reunion proves to be a thoroughly entertaining and intelligent blockbuster, a buddy-flick with some breathtaking action and brilliantly tense moments but, most importantly, with some great characters thanks to a strong script and the two excellent performances. With only a couple of minor complaints, Secret Reunion comes highly recommended for a very entertaining couple of hours.

의형제 (Secret Reunion)
Directed by Jang Hoon
Produced by Yoo Jeong-hoon, Song Myung-cheol, Jang Won-seok
Written by Jang Min-seok, Kim Joo-ho, Choi Kwan-young, Jang Hoon
Starring Song Kang-ho, Kang Dong-wan, Jeon Gook-hwan, Park Hyuk-kwon, Yoon Hee-seok

Secret Reunion Image © Showbox/Mediaplex Inc., Dasepo Club Co. Ltd.