7th March 2011
Cable television channel KTV came through yet again with another movie I had never seen– this time from director Kim Shi-hyeon. I had reviewed one of Kim’s films, Fight at Hong Kong Ranch, back in November. He directed numerous films between 1965 and 1988 and the vast majority of these were action movies. A Spy Remaining Behind is no exception, taking place in the early days of the Korean War in 1950 after Seoul has fallen and been occupied by North Korean forces. While the southern armies were being driven back towards Busan and awaiting UN support, a spy is sent into the capital to learn about enemy plans and military manuevers. This is Lt. Han Deok-won played by Shin Seong-il. He has been given intensive training and a support network of top undercover agents to help him move information south of enemy lines. In order to build his credibility among the communist commanders in charge of Seoul, Han is ‘arrested’ by his southern comrades and housed in a prison cell with a high-ranking communist official. After gaining his cellmate’s trust, Han and his new friend escape their captors. While his former cellmate sets himself up as the key power in Seoul, Han hides in the house of the wife of an army officer from the north. After time passes, he makes his way to city hall to meet with his former cellmate and see what he can learn that will help turn the tide of the battle. Much to his shock, he finds his former girlfriend Mi-yeong (played by Kim Chang-sook) working there as a secretary.
Mi-yeong is the other half of the story. She had no communist tendencies but found herself caught up in the politics of the time when a man she trusted played by Heo Jang-kang turned out to be a communist spy and assassin. He duped Mi-yeong into delivering an exploding bottle of champagne to the house of a South Korean politician. While the bomb-in-a-bottle was detonated harmlessly, Mi-yeong was arrested and sentenced to prison time as an enemy of the state. However, when North Korea invaded Seoul, they freed all political prisoners and the confused Mi-yeong found herself in a position of priviledge and given a job in the city hall. However, once she meets her former lover again, she makes it clear where her loyalties lie. Her position in the government building makes it easier for her to obtain state secrets than Lt. Han can.
Their small spy ring seems to be doing quite well, but suspicion eventually falls on Han. He and his team decide that they will attempt to cripple northern army by bringing down the administration in Seoul. They plan not to simply assassinate the members of the communist party working in city hall, but to bring down the building itself in a series of explosions. To make this work, will require everyone to know his or her part and for everything to go off without a hitch. Of course, it wouldn’t be a movie if there wasn’t a hitch…
I found this movie to be quite good, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if it had been directed by a different director. Kim Shi-hyeon’s style of directing is a little choppy and too much importance is given to people who turn out to be minor characters while not developing some other characters at all. For example, the assassin who uses Mi-yeong is made to seem like he would be important later in the movie, but he is barely seen again after Mi-yeong is freed from prison. Meanwhile, Lt. Han’s team are all given introductions complete with tight close ups and descriptions of their specialties, but they are never expanded upon after that and are pretty much interchangable.
Shin Seong-il is good as always and Kim Chang-sook does a fair job as Mi-yeong–she tends to be a little too obvious in her ‘furtive’ movements while acting as a spy. However, there is one person who steals the spotlight in every scene she is in. Unfortunately, she is not in anywhere near enough of the movie. That is the officer’s wife who takes in Lt. Han not realizing he is a spy. You can see her in the poster above, baring her cleavage..I will blow that up for you and put it in this paragraph. It is veteran actress Kim Soo-mi in her debut film role. She had debuted on television a few years prior to this winning MBC TV’s ‘Best New Actress’ award in 1972. Kim Soo-mi (or should I call her by her real name, Kim Yeong-ok) played Ae-ja. She takes in Lt. Han after he has jumped from a moving train, offers him something to eat and ten minutes later she is in bed with him. She is motivated entirely by her own selfish needs, not politics. She apparently had thought herself a widow and greets her husband with a shocked expression and a ‘Honey, you’re still alive.’ She asks her husband to wait while she hides Lt. Han whom she has been living with several weeks by that time, into the closet. She is not worried that Han might steal the top secret documents her husband in carrying. She is only concerned that she is not caught in adultry.
Most Korean movies of the 70s have a bad reputation, but I have often found them to be fun to watch. Not just for the actors and actresses, many of whom are still active today, but for the stories themselves. I think it is just a matter of becoming familar with the style of storytelling and accepting the limitations of the film technology available at the time. A Spy Remaining Behind is not on DVD nor do I expect it to be. But on the off chance it receives a DVD release, give it a chance. You may find yourself enjoying it too.