BUSAN, South Korea – With the 15th Pusan International Film Festival soon underway, we find ourselves immersed in a catalogue of films that help define the astute tastes of cinema lovers from all over the world. Some of the Korean selections are seeing their world premier on one of the grandest stages ever to grace Asia’s prominent film society, while others are well-established pieces of entertainment that have already seen a successful run in Korean cinemas this year. Taking a film from the latter category, I am pleased to see that director Jang Hun’s Secret Reunion (also known in some international markets as Brothers) will be treating international audiences to screenings on October 8th, 10th, and the 14th.
The films opening sequence is nothing short of remarkable, announcing the arrival of its lead characters with a whizz-bang action spectacle that sets the bar unusually high. Such an opening would make it difficult for the rest of the film to live up to the palpable excitement and tension on display, but for the most part the narrative follows through.
Actor Kang Do-won plays Ji-won with stylish empathy, a North Korean spy sent to infiltrate South Korea for a series of assassination missions. When his cover is nearly blown due to a grand public display of violence, he is forced to live in exile in South Korea, cut off from his wife and child residing in the North. Ji-won’s boss is known as Shadow, played with vicious efficiency by Jeon Gook-hwan, who is tasked with leading the assassinations of all North Korean traitors and defectors. Upon witnessing the “rain of blood” that Shadow revels in, Ji-won’s emotional state is clear; he despises the nature of his mission, but refuses to betray his country on a matter of principle. While living in exile in Seoul, Ji-won is free to make a living to the best of his ability, but is plagued with the threat to the life of his family who is trapped on the other side of the DMZ.
Ji-won’s opposition comes in the form of Lee Han-kyu, Song Kang-ho’s NIS agent who is disgraced and cast out of his agency as a result of his failure to apprehend Shadow. Song Kang-ho is, without question, the standout performance here, channeling the guilt Han-kyu now shoulders resulting from the loss of life during the mission, and also nursing his ego, bruised from a divorce and lack of contact with his young daughter. Six years after the incident with Shadow, Han-kyu is making his living as a private investigator. Han-kyu is still clinging to the past, and hasn’t forgotten the glimpse he caught of Ji-won’s face at the scene of the crime. Through happenstance Ji-won and Han-kyu meet, and thus begins an uneasy relationship between the two. Han-kyu seizes this opportunity to re-initiate the investigation into Shadow, using his new friendship with Ji-won as leverage to regain the confidence of his agency.
Secret Reunion has as little to do with North/South Korean politics as possible. This is not a film that intends to make any kind of statement regarding black ops programs run by either side, nor is it a parable on the mindset of North Korean spies or defectors. At its core lies the story of two men who happen to be on opposite sides of the DMZ, and their patriotism is clearly define from the outset. They are men of principle, especially Ji-won who refuses to betray anyone who is loyal to him, and would not risk endangering the life of his wife and young child as a result of helping a South Korean agency. As their friendship develops, we see the complexities of these two characters, always at odds with each other, yet growing and learning from one another as their mistrust begins to weaken. The fantastic thing about Jang-hun’s direction is that his character study always remains at the forefront of a very rich and entertaining narrative, despite the occasional hiccup in tone (usually a missed gag involving a Vietnamese gangster).
The film is sweet-natured in its earnest attempts at drawing these two characters closer together in a sort of brotherly bond. They are victims of circumstance, thrust against a vile political backdrop that dictates that they should treat each other as enemies, and as a result of their moral principles, they are offered little recourse. The narrative structure is at once entertaining and confident in its abilities to provide a thoroughly engrossing look at two extremely identifiable characters. As the film comes to a close, it will be up to the individual viewer as to whether or not the conclusion is satisfyingly warranted, or overtly sentimental. I, for one, think that Secret Reunion delivers on its initial promise of an emotionally thrilling piece of cinema. It’s one of the better Korean films to be released this year.