PLEASE NOTE: This is a movie review I wrote FOREVER ago and published on a different, old, and long dead, blog. Also, I have not really edited this review, instead I’ve just slapped it up here because … well, it is because I am a bit lazy! Haha.
COVERTLY, GRANDLY Korean Movie Review:
This is a Korean movie that came out in 2013. It is called an action/comedy, but whatever!!!!!!! It is a total tragedy! Also, it stars Kim Soo Hyun … in a role he reprises for a (very amusing) cameo in the 2019 Kdrama Crash Landing on You. (It made me giggle.)
So let’s start off with a quote from Secretly, Grandly…..
‘I was born as a dog and raised as a monster.’
And there we have the opening lines of this movie, making it abundantly clear already that it is not quite the mindless shenanigan comedy I had initially expected it to be.
This movie was on my ‘to do’ list since I first heard about its existence. Because of Kim Soo-hyun obviously…
However whenever I tried to search it never was available …. which, as it tuns out, was only because on the place I kept looking, it was listed under ‘Secretly, Greatly’ instead of the usual ‘Covertly, Grandly’.
Okay, so maybe that was an incredibly boring story to start off my review and of no interest to anyone at all (sorry) but i just can’t help but be fascinated by the weirdness of interpreting between languages, it is crazy interesting!
This movie is actually a lot deeper and darker than expected from its rather ridiculous sounding premise, but hey it really works. There is something here that grabbed me by the gut and made me invested and involved, no matter if I was laughing or crying. Whether I wanted to be or not!
Oh and SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!
I know I say this every single time I do a movie review but seriously Korean movies just astound me! They are so unpredictable and odd yet always always manage to deliver a deadly emotional punch, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.
Okay so for example, if you are watching a western movie that has been marketed (and starts out) as a bit of a slapstick comedy, you certainly wouldn’t expect to be taken on a journey across a myriad of exhausting emotions until you end up drained and hurt, yet oddly satisfied as you ball your eyes out….. right? But there is none of this predictability about Korean blockbusters, none of this ‘what you see is what you get’. It actually makes movie watching a bit of a minefield for me because no matter how a film is advertised and marketed it could still very easily end up breaking my heart.
So anyway, rant over and back to this particular story.
We begin with Won Ryu-hwan, a young man born and raised and thoroughly brainwashed on the ideals and propaganda of North Korea. As part of an elite squad who have been brutally trained since they were children, these boys are hardcore scary and capable. To serve his country, Won is sent to the South to blend in and to wait. And because he believes in the cause and his superiors utterly and wholeheartedly, Won goes without question, knowing his mother (whom I get the impression he hasn’t seen in many years) is being well looked after by his Republic as compensation.
Fast forward to Seoul and we see Won undercover as a neighborhood crazy, playing the part of sweet-natured hapless fool expertly and all the while cursing everyone in his head. This man is a soldier through and through, he is hard and resourceful and it kills him to be acting the part he must, and yet because he is such a believer in his necessity and the importance of the future role he must play for his Republic, he doesn’t act his undercover character only half-arsed. Oh no….He goes alllll the way (and yes I am referring to when he pooed in the street!….wut.).
But the problem here is that it has been two years since he left North Korea, and two years is a bloody long time to wait for a mission that never comes. But Won isn’t disillusioned.
And then one day someone he recognises turns up, another young man from his unit, Lee Hae-rang, played by Park Ki Woong. This guy in many ways is Won’s complete opposite, relaxed and charismatic, easy going and not overly patriotic. You get the impression he is here for an adventure and that he doesn’t care much what happens to him the long as he gets a thrilling ride along the way. Just as deadly as Won, yet with less loyalty and less to live for, Lee is something new, a change to Won’s structured dull environment that sets him on edge. Why Lee and why now?
Also .. his hair is orange.
Just so you know.
Won follows this newcomer with the view that Lee knows something he doesn’t, has some sort of special mission he hasn’t been privy to, though it turns out that Lee is really just as clueless as he is. (Or maybe even more so).
Now I guess that all sounds fairly intriguing and tense, and it kind of is… but it is also all played for giggles too. Won in the guise of hapless fool Dong gu is embarrassing and clumsy, always falling flat on his face and inappropriately staring. He acts the part well, so much so that when you get to scenes like the big shirtless hardcore spy is going to be capable and kill everyone scene, it is a bit if a shock to realise the man under the disguise is still lethal and deadly serious, quietly intelligent and intuitive in all the ways his alias is not.
In fact, for a brainwashed North Korean spy truly ready to undertake any brutal mission asked of him by his government, Won is actually a very likeable and sympathetic character.
This probably has a hell of a lot to do with the actor playing him, the lovely Kim Soo-hyun, who manages to add a nice quiet gravity to the goofy exterior and hardened soldier core of this character. His performance here was actually enough to remind me why he was the very first K-actor I ever fell in love with back during my first ever drama outing of ‘Dream High‘. It is doubly impressive because after witnessing the truly adorable lovableness that was his character Song Sam Dong in that show, I never could have pictured him pulling off this more masculine and physical type. Yet he does so easily and naturally, with an unexpected sweetness that is at odds with the strength and hardness of Won, but totally works. And is actually more than a little bit refreshing. Not to mention distractingly lovely. Like really really lovely. Like how does a man this pretty even exist?
Anyway, back to the story, in comes a third sleeper agent, this time a teenager posing as a highschool student, a boy who also happens to have a very big hero crush on our Won. Ri Hae-jin is definitely patriotic and brainwashed, but despite the cold harsh truth of him being a lethal killer, he also has this odd innocence about him. Because no matter how much he loves his country, he loves Won more, placing him high up on a pedestal and idolizing him since he was a small child.
I don’t know if this attraction Ri feels for Won is meant to be translated into a romantic feeling, but he is certainly very affected by any physical intimacy the two share, so it is definitely possible.
It is love though. I am definitely sure of that. But whether it is a romantic attraction or just simply hero worship I am not sure.
There is a nice level of comedy in this film, not overly slapstick and in your face but definitely enough to keep you giggling at the beginning as you watch Won navigate through this odd little life he has made for himself. There is this sweetness apparent as it slowly becomes obvious that Won is far more deeply embroiled in this neighborhood and its residents then even he has exactly realised. When they are in trouble he acts without stopping to realise his attachment is at odds with who he is meant to be, and it is like this that his disillusionment with his roots and mission slowly creeps up on him unexpectedly without his knowledge.
And that leads us to this darker theme which threads its way throughout the film as well, being quite unexpected for me. I liked this almost odd seriousness though, which transforms Won from bumbling idiot into lethal weapon in mere moments and includes some nice depth to these three main characters, giving them real personalities and personal traits that make you truly care what happens next.
And what happens next isn’t all that pretty. We get betrayal and disillusionment and suddenly the whole thing turns into one of those tense violent revenge thrillers. And even more unexpectedly, it does it well!
Not quite sure that he is ready to die by suicide along with the rest of his sleeper agents (as they have been ordered to do), Won goes on the warpath, tearing a bloody road of destruction through the North Korean agents sent to kill him, agents accompanied by his old superior officer who initially sent him on this neverending mission.
The three boys react quite differently to this situation which I found quite interesting.
First we have Lee who doesn’t seem to care much for anything at all except living to the fullest. But in saying that I think he is the only one of the three who gave me the impression from the very start he never really believed he would come through it all alive.
Although he is the one most preoccupied with living and experiencing life fully, Lee also seems the most ready to go. He won’t let the agents dictate to him how he should live, which makes him most ready to die just to be free, just as a way to say ‘fuck you’ to the government who have controlled his life for so long.
Lee does clearly care for the other boys, evident in the way he sacrifices his own life on the off chance that they might live, but I also feel like he was a little too far gone to be able to settle into a normal life like the others might have, which is why I think he made that decision. I think Lee knew he had less chance at a real future if he survived the fight. Even when he first arrived in the south he seemed reckless, living with abandon, like he was absolutely preoccupied with the now, with never a thought for the future.
But maybe his recklessness and seemingly uncaring bravery in regards to his death stemmed from the fact that he had long since accepted it. (Also, can I just mention randomly that the whole reckless abandon thing was a little bit sexy?)
The other two boys are different.
More than anything Won cares for his mother. It seems like everything he has ever done in his military career stems from the fact that he believes she will be looked after and have a good life. He has loyalty to his country but it only goes so far, which is why when he realises she is gone and that he has been used and manipulated, he doesn’t care what happens next but goes out in a ball of flaming fire and revenge. And yet, when he is already wounded beyond repair, it finally occurs to him (through finding a cheque book in his jacket) that he had a good life in the south after all, that he had found a way to enjoy a family and be (relatively) normal. That there was someone here who loved him like a son.
At this point I really expected him to stand up and fight, I thought he had finally found a reason to live. But poor Ri, he is hysterical and can’t see any way out at all. He is too terrified to lay his weapons down and is so overwhelmed by that one thought in his head, ‘protect Won’, that he can’t even function rationally. He is so lost and alone in this moment, and it frustrated me so much because all Ri can think of is Won, protecting Won, saving Won, loving Won, all his thoughts and actions centered around this one single person who is lying on the floor not thinking about him at all.
It was actually a little sad, and not to mention hugely frustrating that Won didn’t defuse this situation when he could have.
By the time Won is rocked back to awareness it is already much to late, Ri is riddled with bullet holes and dying. But Won protects this boy now in his own way, in the only way he can. He dies with him. Won wraps his arms around Ri as the bullets fly and then launches them both off the rooftop so they can die by choice and by their own hand, without their lives being dictated by anyone else.
Of course it is all a bit futile because they all freaking die, which I am going to admit had me sobbing uncontrollably at the screen, crying and crying.
It was all just so emotional and distressing.
Now I am not exactly a fan of sad upsetting endings just for the sake of it, but I thought in many ways this ending did work. Even though it was horrible and I would have much much preferred that at least Won and Ri were able to return to their sleepy little lives in their neighborhood, I can also see that their deaths meant something.
Lee made a choice. He was not the type to go on living a quiet life, I don’t think it would have worked so he chose to die in order to protect these people that matter to him.
Ri was scared and lost it is true, and that situation could have been handled better for sure, but again he made a choice to save Won at all costs, it mattered to him more than his own life.
And Won himself rebelled against the people who hurt his mother, he chose to free himself from that awful world they created for him, and though he died just like they wanted him to, I feel he made a point first and died on his own terms.
But….. I would have much preferred it if they all lived happily ever after instead. Sob…..
Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!
LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea.
Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels!