South Koreans warm to film spies from North

"Secretly Greatly" broke the box-office record for most ticket sales in its first day of release by a Korean film. Picture: Contributed
"Secretly Greatly" broke the box-office record for most ticket sales in its first day of release by a Korean film. Picture: Contributed
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A TRIO of elite, but bumbling, North Korean spies has won the hearts of southern compatriots in a blockbuster South Korean film that unusually views the tragedy of the divided peninsula through comedy.

Secretly Greatly – which attracted a million viewers in the 36 hours after its release last month in a South Korean first – testifies to the fascination the North holds 60 years after the end of the Korean War.

In that conflict, North and South Korea and their allies fought each other to a standstill and never signed a formal peace declaration. The world’s most heavily militarised border still separates the two.

North and South Korea only agreed yesterday to hold talks this weekend on restarting a jointly run factory park after weeks of testy silence between the two sides, the South Korean government said.

“It is my wish that everyone, including our current leaders, watch this movie to see how the younger generation is affected by our tragic division,” said director Jang Cheol-soo at the premiere of the movie, which was based on a hit internet comic.

Main character Won Ryu-hwan, a spy fluent in five languages who has 98.7 per cent accuracy with a gun – alluding to the late North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il’s reputed 11 holes-in-one in one game of golf – is dispatched to the South, and told to disguise himself as a fool.

He meets two comrades, one pretending to be a rock star, despite poor guitar skills and the other a naive high school student. Bored by ordinary life in the South they yearn for a grand mission that they hope will turn them into legends, in order to return to the Fatherland.

The issue of spies in the South is a serious one and has spawned a cottage industry of analysts and think-tanks poring over Pyongyang’s every move. About 43 covert operatives have been rounded up in the last decade, says a source in the National Intelligence Service.

It has also been a popular topic for movies, such as Shiri in 1999 and The Berlin File in 2012, both of which were high-grossing films.

Secretly Greatly differs by taking a lighter look at North-South relations as the three spies develop an unexpected fondness for their neighbours, sharing a laugh over a simmering chicken stew and riding on swings in a playground.

“Although the film goes along with the standard North-South conflict plot, it plays that out with a cheerful touch,” said film critic Kim Hyo-seon.

“The charming interactions between the villagers and the spies allow the audience to comfortably absorb the heavy topic.”

The cartoonist who came up with Covertness, the hit web cartoon on which the film is based, said a fleeting thought while eating lunch inspired his creation, whose 66 episodes got a combined 40 million hits.

“It suddenly occurred to me that at least one person in the restaurant could be a spy, quietly living among us,” said Choi Jong-hun, who goes by the pen name “Hun”.

“Of course the North and South are enemies and the division is a tragedy. But I think we are one people, and the story focuses on that love for neighbours and family.”