Director: Kim Sung-Hoon
Writer: Yoon Hyun-Ho
Cast: Hyun-Bin, Yu Hae-Jin, Kim Ju-Hyeok, Jang Young-Nam, Yoona, Park Min-Ha, Lee Hae-Young, Lee Dong-Hwi, Kong Jung-Hwan, Jeon Kuk-Hwan
Running Time: 125 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s been interesting to watch the portrayal of North Korean characters develop since the beginning of the Korean wave in the late 90’s. Back then, while still commercially appealing in their nature, movies like Shiri and J.S.A. portrayed the South’s north of the border counterparts as characters with their own internal conflicts and personalities. Since then, mainstream Korean cinema has largely resorted to using North Korea as an origin for agents with their own hidden agendas, usually played by good looking young actors, crossing into the South to perform undercover missions. This particular trend peaked in 2013, which gave us the bombardment of Commitment, The Suspect, and Secretly, Greatly.
Out of all the mainstream movies to use the undercover North Korean agent trope though, for me the one that did it best was 2010’s Secret Reunion. Essentially a buddy movie in the guise of a North vs South tale, director Jang Hoon cast Song Kang-ho as a detective, that gets fired after a mission to catch a North Korean spy goes horribly wrong. During the same mission, another North Korean agent escapes, played by Kang Dong-won, but ultimately finds himself stranded in the South. They both briefly glimpse each other, and when their paths cross by chance six years later, neither believes the other recognizes them. Circumstances ultimately lead them to form a private detective agency together, with both of their intentions to steal information from the other. The end result was a surprisingly effective action comedy, and in more ways than one, 2016’s Confidential Assignment uses an identical template in the hope of recreating the same winning formula.
Thankfully director Kim Seong-hoon tweaks the plot of Secret Reunion enough to make Confidential Assignment an entertaining piece of action comedy in its own right. Yoo Hae-jin, who after years of playing supporting roles is finally enjoying his second co-starring role in as many years (the first being Luck.Key), plays a clumsy middle aged detective, that finds himself ordered to unofficially pair with a North Korean detective. His counterpart is played by Hyeon Bin, who before becoming a popular romantic lead in both TV dramas and movies, was the co-star in 2004’s taekwondo movie Spin Kick. Hyeon’s character is part of a North Korean delegation attending a North & South government meeting, however secretly both are after a North Korean agent who’s gone rogue, and is hiding out in Seoul. The crux is that neither are completely honest with each other, with both having their own ulterior motives for getting to the rogue agent before the other.
There should be no mistake that Confidential Assignment is as commercial a movie as they come, clearly created to appeal to as broader audience as possible with its mix of hard hitting action for the guys, Hyun Bin to attract the female demographic, and comedy that’s suitable for the whole family. As a result, it’s difficult to argue that it feels like anything other than a by-the-numbers thriller that we’ve seen plenty of times before. The production is Seong-hoon’s sophomore effort, having previously directed the 2012 musical drama My Little Hero, and may not be the obvious choice to helm an action comedy, but the direction is confident, and the pace remains brisk throughout. Indeed it’s the pacing of Confidential Assignment which is one of its biggest strengths, as despite the potential for melodrama never being far away, thankfully Seong-hoon resists the decision to ever delve into it.
Instead, the focus is kept squarely on both the action and the comedy. Much like Kang Dong-won ends up moving in with Song Kang-ho in Secret Reunion, the same plot device is used here, as Hae-jin ends up inviting Hyeon to stay with his family in their homely Seoul apartment. There was no doubt that Hyeon would have little more to do in Confidential Assignment than look handsome and deliver the action, but he has a likable presence, and is never overwhelmed by the more experienced Hae-jin. A comedic highlight comes when Hae-jin fits him with a GPS ankle bracelet, usually reserved for sex criminals, explaining that it’s what all South Korean detectives wear in order to discreetly identify each other. However when Hyeon spends some time alone at a viewpoint overlooking the city, he’s approached by another man also wearing one, who proceeds to excitedly ask him what he’s into, leading to a hilariously played out misunderstanding.
His action scenes, of which there are many, also provide a convincing sense of physicality and excitement. From a thrilling foot chase through the streets of Seoul, that ends with him clinging onto a moving car, to a one against many fist fight, which sees a unique use of a toilet roll. He also gets a couple of one-on-one throwdown against a towering Kong Jung-hwan, which under the guidance of martial arts team members Choi Tae-hwan and Kim Tae-hwan, deliver a satisfyingly visceral level of punishment. Hae-jin understandably takes a back seat when it comes to the action, however one particular scene is noteworthy thanks to its hilarious nature, when he also finds himself up against a group of attackers, and frantically attempts to figure out how Hyeon had used the toilet roll from an earlier fight.
Confidential Assignment’s other big plus is the chemistry between Hae-jin and Hyeon. The pair form a convincing onscreen bond, from their initial hostility towards each other, to the gradual trust that, while never becoming completely unconditional, develops enough for them to gain a mutual respect of one another. We may have seen Hae-jin’s struggling family man detective a hundred times before, and Hyeon’s wardrobe is clearly fashioned from the Won Bin Man from Nowhere look (at one point Hae-jin’s wife asks him if he only brought the one black suit with him), but their portrayal of their characters is still convincing.
Special mention should also go to Kim Joo-hyeok, who plays the rogue agent that everyone is after, and acts as the villain of the piece who we should all be rooting against. His character is perhaps the most interesting, as his decision to go rogue was largely based on seeing through the North’s cult of personality based regime, and realising that he could make it rich in the South. While his motivations are not necessarily the reason for him being the villain (anyone who realises that the North’s regime is an illusion should surely be considered a character worthy of our sympathies), his villainy comes in the form of the ruthless way he chooses to make his escape to the South. While these complexities aren’t explored in any particular depth, and nor should they be in a piece of popcorn entertainment such as this, it does give an interesting slant to proceedings.
This also leads into the other interesting element that Confidential Assignment presents the audience with. Unlike so many other similar productions, were the character from the North usually chooses to stay in the South, here it’s never questioned that Hyeon will go back home after the mission is complete. In that regard, he completes his mission to find the rogue agent, and stays true to the regime, returning back to Pyongyang once it’s complete. While in the movie itself the fact is not presented as a big deal, I don’t think I can recall another production in which a similar scenario is presented, and the North doesn’t become the over-arching super villain at some point. Even Secret Reunion decides to go down this route by the end, with Dong-won’s North Korean agent successfully defecting to the South. If anything, Confidential Assignment is the complete opposite, ending with a scene of Hae-jin and Hyeon together in Pyongyang.
While it’s easy to pin the success of Confidential Assignment on the chemistry between Hae-jin and Hyeon, that wouldn’t be entirely fair. At the end of the day, Seong-hoon has looked to craft an entertaining action comedy, and to that end the final product delivers both funny comedy and exciting action, which is exactly what it was aspiring to do. While it’s certainly never going to be considered a classic, as a brisk piece of popcorn entertainment, you can certainly do a lot worse.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10