When the Berlin Wall came down, it was goodbye Checkpoint Charlie and time for the world to celebrate, though not so much for worried fans of spy fiction.
Sure, millions may have been saved, but what of James Bond, George Smiley and Harry Palmer? Would the bestselling psychological leftish John LeCarré and the super-popular rightist technogeek Tom Clancy both become as outdated as yesterday’s Pravda? No worries — spying is probably the world’s third or fourth oldest profession. Wars, cold and hot, aren’t going away anytime soon.
And, in Korea, the Cold War itself – and nuclear terror — never really ended. Since 1953 and the ceasefire that failed to settle the Korean War between the communist North and the anticommunist South, the war has continued to rage underground.
According to the press materials for “Double Agent,” hundreds of North Korean spies have been executed or “committed suicide” in the once repressive, not-so-free “freedom land” of South Korea. Several thousand South Korean spies are missing, probably dead and murdered by the Stalinist government of Kim Il Song and later his deranged chip-off-the-evil-block horror-film fan son, Kim Jong Il. No wonder that the makers of the James Bond films have turned to Korea as an apt breeding ground for supervillains.
Still, there’s nothing Bondian about “Double Agent” — a stark tale in the tradition of such realistic spy classics as LeCarré’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” It’s the story of Lim Byung-ho (Korean superstar Han Suk-gyu), a top-level North Korean spy. One night in 1980, Lim risks all to make a break at the 38th Parallel. Once in Southern custody, he claims to be a defector. His captors, including the stolid Baek Seung-chil (Chun Ho-jin), are suspicious — and they don’t mind using a little torture to allay those suspicions. Lim, maximally stoic, sticks to his story. He is defecting in the name of freedom, which is a difficult proposition given that South Korea was under a military dictatorship at the time.
As years pass, Lim persuades the South that he is a loyal anticommunist and a valuable asset. Wrong. He’s still working for the glorious leader, Kim Il Song. When the time is right, he makes contact with a sleeper agent, Yoon Su-mee (Goh So-young) — a pretty classical music deejay and second-generation communist spy. Eventually, a genuine love arises between the two of them and they must face a series of increasingly unpleasant realities as they realize that their only worthwhile allegiance is to each other.
Shot in striking widescreen by Kim Sung-bok, “Double Agent” is a detailed look into the life of essentially good, genuinely heroic people at people on both sides of the Korean divide. The only significant difference between them is an accident of birth, causing them to work for a pair of governments representing differing shades of black. It’s an impressive directing debut for co-writer Kim Hyun-jung and one of the better spy films to come out in the last few years.