Friday, January 10, 2014

KCS Korean Movie Night: Commitment

It is hard to get more Zeitgeisty than a film about North Korean purges.  You can ask Kim Jong-un’s uncle about it, if you have a Ouija board in your pocket.  A teenager recruited out of Yodok prison becomes a pawn in Kim’s brutal succession plan in Park Hong-soo’s Commitment (trailer here), which screens for free this coming Tuesday in New York, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service.

Ri Myung-hoon had always done his duty as a sleeper spy, so he expected to return home to his son and daughter, right on schedule.  Unfortunately, the Communist regime does not give out gold watches.  Instead, they betray Ri’s father and imprison his family.  Since he is a real chip chiseled off the old block, a crafty old spymaster offers Ri a chance to save his sister Hye-in.  Posing as a defector, he will hunt down the assassin from a rival North Korean spy faction killing members of his sleeper cell.

To maintain his cover, he will also spend some time in high school, where he meets Lee Hye-in.  Besides her name, something about her reminds him of his sister.  As a disciplined undercover operative, he valiantly resists the urge to lay a beat down on the bullies that torment her, but it is obviously just a matter of time.  Likewise, the plots in Pyongyang will soon embroil Ri and nearly every other sleeper.

It is easy to see why Commitment’s blend of action and tragic teen angst would be popular with Korean audiences, but it is also a rather astute reflection of the current geopolitical climate.  Although Park served as assistant director on Jang Hun’s wishful thinking unification thriller Secret Reunion, Commitment is more closely akin to Ryoo Seung-wan’s neo-Cold War spy drama Berlin File.  It clearly implies Kim Jong-un is a ruthless Machiavellian and forthrightly addresses the plight of political prisoners.  On the ROK side, the most sympathetic figure is Cha Jung-min, an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, whereas his “keep the lines of communication open” superiors are portrayed as craven opportunists.

Korean rapper T.O.P. (a.k.a. Choi Seung-hyun) is surprisingly credible in his considerable action scenes.  When it comes to high school drama, he certainly broods well enough.  As Lee Hye-in, Han Ye-ri also projects a somewhat reserved screen presence, so they feel right together, even if they do not burn up the set.  Amongst a strong supporting cast, Yoon Je-moon’s Cha hits the right note of rumpled exasperation, while Kim You-jung is arrestingly fragile as sister Hye-in.

Despite several nifty fight scenes, American audiences would probably prefer a higher action to teenage angst ratio.  Still, it is probably the best spy film since maybe Berlin File.  Often smart and tense, Commitment is a fascinating example of the ever shifting manner the two Koreas are depicted in the cinema of the ROK.  Recommended rather highly (especially for free), Commitment screens Tuesday (1/14) at the Tribeca Cinemas, thanks to the Korean Cultural Service in New York.