Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: CONFIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT, A Routine Action-Comedy for the Whole Family

By Pierce Conran

After taking a back seat to Joseon Era dramas and then Japanese Colonial Era films over the last few years, tales of North Korean spies are ramping up to make a big comeback on screens in 2017. The first of four big-budget Korean spy action-thrillers on the way, Confidential Assignment landed just in time for the busy Lunar New Year holiday and has proven to be another smash success for hit making production house JK Films. But like their previous efforts, the commercial calculation of this multi-genre gambit dilutes the effectiveness of its familiar moving pieces.

Superstar Hyun Bin plays a crack North Korean agent who is tasked with traveling below the border and partnering with a South Korean officer to track down a rogue North Korean officer. Both sides aren’t being completely honest with the other, but the two men form a personal bond over time, particularly as the former stays with the latter’s family in their small Seoul apartment.

In the hands of its directors, the painful history of Korea has been a remarkably powerful tool used throughout the last few decades. Whether directly or through metaphors, the country’s film industry has continuously dealt with a wealth of socio-historical topics, churning out several classics along the way. Most prominent among these, and certainly most successful, have been depictions of North Korean on the big screen. Yet, whereas other dark moments of Korean history have yielded unforgettable cinematic tales, the same is rarely the case for North Korea films.

Following the anti-communist narratives of yesteryear, modern films such as Shiri and The Berlin File have been more concerned with spectacle than ideology and while many North Korean spy protagonists are portrayed as moralistic heroes there’s very little real engagement with the identity issues that have arisen from this complex cross-border relationship. At least Kim Ki-duk, who works outside of the system, dares to highlight hypocrisy in films such as Poongsan (which he wrote and produced) and last year’s The Net. By contrast, the films that emanate from Korea’s commercial realm are pure fantasy.

Confidential Assignment, following directly in the footsteps of Secretly, Greatly, Commitment and The Suspect (all from 2013), places one of Korea’s prettiest leading men into the role of a diligent and effective foot solider. Like the characters in the previously mentioned films, he is a pretty boy with smooth, white skin, contrasting with the deeply tanned, nasty North Korean officers who are so typical in these stories, dredging up a long-standing urban-rural social divide in an aspirational contemporary Korea.

Putting the geopolitics aside, Confidential Assignment is a thoroughly by-the-numbers spy thriller with comic and melodramatic overtones thrown into the mix to make it a suitable option for the whole family. The action is competently staged, the story moves along at a decent clip and the melodrama never overwhelms the narrative. A few fake-outs towards the end draw the tale out too long and the women of the story are only there to nag, fawn over Hyun Bin or be saved, but those issues aside, director Kim Sung-hoon’s film is easy-going and not without merit.

No one expected Hyun Bin to be anything more than a pretty face here, but that said he is fine in his co-lead role, acquitting himself well in action scenes and looking the part without ever having too much to say. As the local police officer, Yoo Hae-jin gets some laughs but his mile-a-minute portrayal can be a little exhausting. He was far more effective when he said less in the comedy Luck-Key a few months ago. Kim Joo-hyuk, on a hot steak after The Truth Beneath and Yourself and Yours last year, has some fun as the villain of the piece, bringing him to life with a cold physicality and a sinister drip in his North Korean accent.

Lacking the histrionics of previous JK Films titles Haeundae, Ode to My Father and The Himalayas, Confidential Assignment leaves less of a bad aftertaste but its efficient mediocrity ensures all memories of it will fade before long.


Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment