Review: Secret Reunion


[Korean Movie Night NY is back with Jang Hun’s film Secret Reunion. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tomorrow night (Feb 15th) at 7 PM. More information can be found here.]

Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement to make. I have just seen something incredible, something completely and absolutely bizarre. So bizarre, in fact, that I have rewritten that previous sentence no less than 20 times, because I can’t figure out how to express my feelings properly. I must have known somewhere in the back of my head that this thing had to exist, but all of the evidence I had seen pointed me away from it. What exactly is so weird about The Secret Reunion?

Its unambiguously happy ending.

Secret Reunion (Uihyeongjae)
Director: Jang Hun
Rating: NR
Country: South Korea

The most interesting (though not necessarily the best) foreign films tend to be the ones that give a glimpse into a culture that is both like and unlike your own. A Separation did that very well, and I think that Secret Reunion does as well. I’ve only seen a few movies which deal with the division between North and South Korea, the most recent actually being director Jang Hun’s latest feature, The Front Line, but I feel like it’s among the most interesting cultural conflicts in the world. It is certainly the most interesting conflict involving a country with a quality film industry.

This means that we get to see the story from their perspective. It’s hardly an objective one, but it’s inherently more compelling than a film about the conflict from any other country. Much of Secret Reunion deals with the interactions between a former government agent named Lee Han-Kyu (Song Kang-Ho) and a former North Korean spy named Song Ji-Won (Gang Dong-Won). Six years after an assassination that had Han-Kyu honorably discharged and Ji-Won exiled from his country, the two accidentally meet and begin working together, trying to capture intelligence from each other. However, they inevitably find themselves growing increasingly attached to each other (shown through an irritatingly generic montage). It isn’t all gumdrops and rainbows, however. Even though the two of them bond over this, that, and the other thing, they still harbor fundamentally opposing ideals. This adds a tinge of tension to their entire relationship (something that montage ignores) that makes it a bit more interesting than it otherwise would be.

Secret Reunion 2010 Decryption

I said it before, and this isn’t a spoiler necessarily, but the film ends on a happy note. Whereas films like The Man from Nowhere end on a hopeful note (everything seems all well and good, but the girl’s mom was still brutally murdered early in the film), Secret Reunion is just happy. It’s completely ridiculous that it ends the way it does, but you know what? I don’t care. It was nice to see. I don’t watch very many movies with happy endings, so to see a film (and a Korean one, no less) with one came as quite a pleasant shock.

Much like in Jang Hun’s Rough Cut, the sound design in Secret Reunion’s fight scenes is really quite strange. Things are kind of muted. I wondered in my previous review whether or not it is actually more realistic or not, and it’s not a question I have an answer to, but I continue to find it off-putting. What is worse, though, is the fact that the physical impacts are a bit lacking. There are some moves that very clearly connect, but there are just as many that seem a bit too staged. This is highlighted in a soundless scene where Lee and Song are fighting a group of thugs. With only an orchestral score accompanying the blows, the illusion of impact is much harder to achieve. Unfortunately, Secret Reunion’s fights are not always up to that task.

Secret Reunion 2010 Song Kang-Ho

Instead, most of the quality brutality comes from the silenced pistol of a North Korean assassin named Shadow. His appearances bookend the film, but his presence is always felt (he is the reason for Han-Kyu’s discharge and Ji-Won’s exile). As one would expect from a trained military assassin, nearly every bullet fired hits its mark (with suitably bloody impacts), and he is willing to kill anybody and everybody who gets in his way, including women and children. Moments when Shadow is on (or just off-)screen are certainly the most intense of the film, but there is certainly intensity to be found in other scenes. 

In the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s death, this film instantly dates itself as a period piece. Its footage of the late dictator means that it can no longer feel as though it’s a current event. It’s history. That being said, the rift between the North Korean communists and the South Korean capitalists is as significant as ever. Perhaps even moreso. Although this ideological battle is not the focus of the film, the ideologies and inherent prejudices are significant, and that tension is always there. This gives the film an emotional weight, one that I’m not sure it necessarily deserves. It’s probably because of that montage, though, because that really kind of ruined things for me.

Secret Reunion 2010 Gang Dong-Won

That being said, I really liked Secret Reunion. I’ve been debating ever since I saw it whether or not I think it “great” or “very good,” and the score you see below has changed several times. For a film to break the 80 mark, it needs something that is difficult to explain, and I don’t think Secret Reunion had it. I thought it did, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think it’s the ending. I think the moment that could have turned the film from very good to great was buried. I’m happy the film ended the way it did, as I said, but I think it diminished the film’s impact. Regardless, if you get a chance, you should see Secret Reunion. It’s a really good movie that has some really great moments.

And it has a happy ending, which is nice.