Sunday, June 27, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Secret Reunion

South Korean attitudes towards the North are complex to say the least. Though they understand it is scary up there, the desire for unification leads to a lot of denial. It is a dynamic that can be seen clearly in Hun Jang’s contemporary espionage thriller, Secret Reunion (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Lee Han-kyu is an old school, turf conscious counter-espionage agent. Contemptuous of his agency’s bureaucratic CYA-ing, he is determined to bring in the Ghost, a legendary North Korean assassin, sans back-up. Unfortunately, when his operation goes spectacularly badly, his A is not C’ed. Witnessing the Ghost’s cold-blooded execution of a DPKR defector and his family, Song Ji-won, a mole being run by the Ghost, is deeply shaken. Slipping away in the chaos that follows, he must remain invisible to all, lest his Communist masters suspect he betrayed them. Standard operating procedure under such circumstances in the North would be to condemn his entire family to a prison camp—for all intents and purposes a sentence of death.

As the reunification movement gains traction in the South, the old spy-hunter finds himself out in the cold. Self-employed six years later, he takes scummy gigs, specializing in tracking down runaway mail order brides. Working incognito at a construction site, the fugitive Song helps Lee fend off a Vietnamese gang that got the drop on the freelancer. Recognizing each other right away but pretending not to, Song accepts Lee’s job offer, even moving into the disgraced agent’s crash pad. Of course, as the wary antagonists circle each other at close quarters, they start to become friends in spite of themselves.

As the representative of Southern anti-Communism, Lee is naturally portrayed as the more morally expedient of the two. Song only aided and abetted the execution of defectors and their families. Lee, the capitalist, essentially kidnaps marginalized women to return them to abusive relationships. When pressed by Song, he justifies himself claiming: “Capitalism is about finding happiness by taking another’s wealth.” In truth, that would be a near textbook definition of the Marxist redistributionist system championed by Song’s DPRK. Still, there are certain realities Reunion cannot escape, like the potential fate of Song’s family.

For two-fisted buddy action, Reunion is pretty satisfying. However, as spry as the Ghost might be, it stretches action movie credibility when a man of his advanced years so easily eludes Lee and his pursuing team. In geopolitical terms, the film seems somewhat naive and confused as well. Clearly suggesting we can all just get along, it became an enormous hit when it was released domestically in February. Less than two months later, the ROKS Cheonan was sunk by a DPRK torpedo. How’s that Kumbaya looking now?

Slickly produced, Reunion features Song Kang-ho, probably the recognizable Korean actor in America thanks to roles in films like Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Bong Joon-ho The Host. Indeed, he is perfectly cast as the anti-Communist Oscar Madison. However, while Kang Dong-won is certainly a credible action figure during the fight sequences, he is a bit bland during the quieter moments of dramedy.

Hun Jang mostly keeps Reunion moving along briskly, despite occasionally getting hung-up on Song’s moralizing. Interesting as a Rorschach test of ROK attitudes towards the North, it screens during the 2010 NYAFF on Friday (7/2) and Saturday (7/3) at the Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.