The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010)
It’s not, of course, that South Korea is obsessed with the North. Although the on/off diplomacy is destabilising and the North’s sabre-rattling sets nerves on edge, it’s just a coincidence that Korean cinema picks up on themes involving the relationship with the North. In The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 (2010) we have a somewhat “optimistic” espionage drama in which two young spies from the North infiltrate the South and establish new identities as sleepers. They are Song Ji-Won (Gang Dong-Won) and Son Tae-Soon (Yoon Hee-Seok). The National Intelligence Service is tracking their movements. In fact, Son Tae-Soon has already taken the decision to defect and is feeding information to Lee Han-Kyu (Song Kang-Ho), the officer in charge of one of the counterespionage units. The South hopes to trap their handler, codenamed Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan), who’s coming south to assassinate Kim Jong-il’s second cousin and family.
The first third of the film deals with the build-up and the assassination itself. For Song Ji-Won, it can’t come quickly enough. He desperately misses his wife and daughter and wants to return to them. However, for all his training, he can’t bring himself to kill anyone. Shadow carries out all the executions save the defector’s young son. Song Ji-Won intervenes to save the boy. Thinking that Song Ji-Won is the traitor, Shadow escapes back to the north and has the man condemned in his absence. Unable to go home, he therefore hides in the south. Because Lee Han-Kyu failed to follow protocol, he’s scapegoated for the failure to protect the defector and the deaths of several officers who were killed by Shadow. Six years now pass.
Let’s pause at this point to think about the mythologising that must lay the ground for practical reunification with the North. Despite the rest of the world believing the North is the largest concentration camp ever constructed to specialise in “reeducation”, i.e. the brainwashing of the inhabitants, the South must believe the people in the North will be happy to rejoin them in a single country. Quite what the political system wold be in a unified Korea is left unclear. The fact the two countries have been at war with each other for more than fifty years cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the dream. After all, it proved possible in Germany. Why not on the Korean peninsula? So the film industry must show the new generation of North Koreans as sympathetic to the South. In his film, Son Tae-Soon has already been seduced by living in South and is only too pleased to sell out the other two. Song Ji-Won is shown as a loving husband and father, and as a deeply empathetic man. For all the training, he cannot bring himself to kill innocent women and children. He also proves more of a humanitarian than the capitalist Lee Han-Kyu. In other words, Song Ji-Won is the paragon, the hope for the future. Without a new generation like him, reintegration of the two populations will be extremely difficult. If there had only been a twenty year gap, families separated by the war could have come back together. Now everything will depend on the attitudes on the young on both sides of the border.
So back to the plot. Lee Han-Kyu is running a bounty business specialising in the recovery of runaway wives. A large number of women enter Korea from Viet Nam to marry farmers. When they arrive, they often find the life hard and the husbands unforgiving. During an attempt to capture a small-time gangster supporting this trade, he spots Song Ji-Won working on a building site. After some excitement, he recruits Song Ji-Won to work in his business. So begins the growth of trust and friendship between the two. Song Ji-Won wants the money to pay for his wife and child to be smuggled into the South. Lee Han-Kyu sees a chance to capture Shadow and so clear his name at the National Intelligence Service. Neither admits to recognising the other.
Although there are a two small elements in the story I can’t quite understand, it all works out as you would expect. In other words, it’s standard espionage fare. But the performances of Song Kang-Ho and Gang Dong-Won as a kind of odd couple approaching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau status is completely engaging. There’s a great sense of fun about how they approach the business of tracking down and returning the women. The fact both have “lost” their own wives adds a certain irony to proceedings. They also spy on each other and what they learn builds the trust that’s going to be required when Shadow returns. Put this together and you’ll find The Secret Reunion or Uihyeongjae or 의형제 packages the political message pleasingly, making it well worth watching.