Movie Review: Secretly, Greatly (2013)

Won Ryu-hwan (Kim Soo-hyun) was trained as a spy by a North Korean secret military unit called the 5446 Corps and was dispatched to the South. He poses as a village fool Bang Dong-gu who works in a small neighborhood grocery store. His cover seems flawless. He gathers all sorts of information about everything and everyone, even the mundane. But two years into his covert operation, he is still waiting for instructions from the North.

Kim Soo-hyun plays the country dimwit admirably. His extreme training in the North has endowed him with superhero-like abilities. He tried hard to be emotionally distant from his neighbors, but he grew closer to everyone in the community, especially his foster mother.

One day, his fellow 5446 Corps unit member Ri Hae-rang (Park Ki-woong) appears in the small town. Hae-rang’s goal is to become a rock star, but he soon realizes it’s not easy as it seems upon joining the auditions. Life does not appear to be too complicated for Ryu-hwan until his younger comrade Ri Hae-jin (Lee Hyun-woo) arrives in town. The three continued to live with the locals as ordinary neighbors.

As an aftermath of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, South Korea demands the identities and locations of all the North Korean spies who are dispatched in South Korea in exchange for financial aid. But since the 5446 Corps is considered an elite unit, the North refused to turn in their spies. They ordered them to commit suicide, or they will be labeled as traitors of the republic. This is the great secret mission received by the three young men.

On the other hand, one of the film’s highlights was its supporting cast. My favorites would have to be Ran (Lee Chae-young), a bar singer who had to give up her child for adoption, and Yoo-joo (Choi Woo-shik), a highschool boy who always protects his noona (Park Eun-bin).

During its premiere, the box-office hit Secretly, Greatly received varying feedback from the audiences. While loyal fans loved the friendly atmosphere and endearing characters, the negative comments mostly came from how the ending was handled. The demise of all the main characters seemed unnecessary and did not evoke the needed reactions from viewers.

Despite the tragic turnover of events, it’s no surprise that the three spies would ultimately need to face the threat of being assigned to enemy territory. Rainy surroundings and dreary interior sets detract from the vibrant aesthetic.

The film’s first half is a wonderfully refreshing comedy that is simply fun and violates certain espionage movie clichés. But during the second half, the tone then swings to dark and melodramatic. This happens so abruptly and without warning that you feel entirely alienated from the sudden plot development. The characters you’ve grown to love vanished into thin air, and the audience was treated to a completely new film. It could have become a standalone comedy using fish-out-of-water storytelling. The eccentric personalities of Dong-gu, Hae-rang, and Hae-jin – and the unexpected friendship that developed among them was always a welcome sight.

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