Before the NYAFF screening of Secretly Greatly, director Jang Cheol-Soo (the man behind the oft-mentioned-by-me Bedevilled), came out and said a few words. He specifically said that fans of his previous film might be surprised by how commercial the film was, and that he was planning on returning to more artistic endeavors in the future. This was, in a sense, a way to pay the bills. It wasn’t quite an apology, but the translated “Please be patient” came pretty close.
I can see why he said that.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Secretly Greatly (Eunmilhage Widaehage | 은밀하게 위대하게)
Director: Jang Cheol-Soo
Country: South Korea
When a North Korean spy assimilates into South Korean culture, how do people know? Presumably there’s some differences in dialect but that can be learned away, and it’s not like there are dramatic differences in bone structure, skin tone, etc. A North Korean spy, as long as he’s able to keep from himself from greeting others as “Comrade” and celebrating the working class, will fit in fine. Hiding in plain sight is easy.
In Secretly Greatly, the spies go even further, actively calling attention to themselves. The protagonist, Won Ryu-Hwan (Kim Soo-Hyun), is an elite spy whose mission is to be the village idiot. So he dons a green sweatsuit, a ridiculous haircut and matching grin, and viola, he is Bang Dong-Gu, carefully calculating three pratfalls down stairs each day, weekly public urination, etc. etc. The small children don’t realize that when they throw rocks at his head, he is calculating the trajectory, speed, their location, and exactly how he should react and retaliate, because he can’t do anything: The rock just has to hit him. But he can take it. In fact, he can take pretty much anything.
Where things go from there is unimportant, because Secretly Greatly greatest assets are purely physical. When the comedy works, it works, and there is plenty of fun to be had with Dong-Gu’s perceived dumbness. As would be expected, the action is also quite good, with some cool looking fight scenes, with one-on-one fights early on becomes three-on-eight by the end. There’s some nice escalation, and it plays out well. It’s not the best of the best, but it’s above what you might get from a similar Hollywood film. And there are lots of similar Hollywood films to choose from, because the movie, especially later on, really feels like a foreign attempt at Hollywood filmmaking. And it is obvious right from the first punch.
Foley is an under-appreciated artform. The work that goes into making a punch, kick, or whatever sound good (not necessarily real, but good) is incredible, but if they do their jobs right (like many designers), people won’t notice. On the whole, I’ve noticed that the action foley in Korean films tends to be a bit more subdued and the bombastic leather-glove-punching-raw-meat that Hollywood popularized. That’s not a steadfast rule, but more often than not that has been my experience as a viewer. Then again, maybe it’s because I don’t usually watch films like Secretly Greatly. Secretly Greatly sounds like a Hollywood film, but it goes even further. Along with the ridiculous sounding punches, each arm twist has the nice crunch of some broken celery, which gives the impression that things should be breaking, but they don’t. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single obviously broken bone (except maybe a neck snap) in the entire film. There are twists and locks and crunches and cracks, but nobody ever screams in pain. Maybe North Korean spies are trained not to react if their bones break, but come on. Disappointment.
There are also tonal issues, which has been a recurring theme at this year’s fest. The comedy of the first two acts (this is billed as an action-comedy, by the way) makes way for what is clearly supposed to be drama but completely falls flat. Ryu-Hwan’s story of a son who misses his mother is supposed to be tragic, but it just comes across as hokey, and the ending just goes for manipulation, but it doesn’t work, because everything feels forced. Yeah, it’s sad what happens, but everyone involved was stupid for letting it happen. It’s just in service of more gunfire and explosions. A sacrifice is made meaningless, but not to make some grand statement. Instead, it’s just trying to get a rise out of the audience, like any commercial film would.
I’m glad that I knew that the film was going for commercialism from the get go, but even lowered expectations don’t make it worthwhile. The action’s good, but it’s no better than any number of other Korean/Asian films, and I could actually feel myself becoming increasingly detached as the film progressed. In the opening, I was with it, laughing and enjoying myself, and that last for a little while; then things took a turn and never fixed their course. By the end, “Yeah!” had become “meh,” and the cheers of the audience went from reasonable to confusing. A lot of the audience was comprised of actual Koreans, so maybe there’s something cultural about it I was missing, but I don’t think so. The audience just had poor bad taste.
Not that I’m judging.