These days, spy movies suck big and loud, the flag-bearer for suckiness being the ailing James Bond franchise. Whatever happened to movies like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD or THE THIRD MAN?
Simple: they moved to Korea.
Marking the return of acting icon, Han Suk-Kyu (SHIRI, CHRISTMAS IN AUGUST), after a three year retirement, DOUBLE AGENT is a tamped-down, winter's chill of a film. Bringing to life the bad old days of the Cold War it gives us the calculating human chess games of John LeCarre at his best. A stomach-churning look at the 1980's anti-communist madness that turned patriots into torturers, its plot hinges on the minutiae of a spy's life: the accidental photograph, a name dropped during a confession, a car sitting at the end of a darkened street.
Han Suk-Kyu plays a North Korean defector who comes over Checkpoint Charlie. After a brutal trip to Namsan Mountain (the South Korean CIA's head office; "going to Namsan" used to be a euphemism for being tortured) his motives for defecting are deemed pure and he starts working for the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency. But is he a South Korean spy? A North Korean spy pretending to be a South Korean spy? Or a North Korean spy pretending to be a South Korean spy pretending to be...
DOUBLE AGENT replicates the 80's in perfect detail, from the clothes, to the politics, to the retro soundtrack. But ultimately it's a character-driven movie where the question isn't what happens, but how. Han Suk-Kyu's performance as a patriot who will twist himself into whatever shape his masters desire is hypnotically intense. There's repressed violence in everything he does and the screen vibrates with bad voodoo even when he's just sitting there, listening. Running on a treadmill that's going too fast, he has to keep running or he'll fall into the machinery and be ground to a pulp. From the minute we first see him we can see his expiration date - it's stamped on his forehead. A man this twisted up, under this much pressure, is going to go to pieces sooner or later. In this case, it's sooner. Producing, as well as starring, the Korean press jokingly referred to this as Han Suk-Kyu's directorial debut based on reports from the set that he was telling first-time director, Kim Hyung-Jeong, where to put the camera in every shot. Well, he was right. This is probably the only adult film to hit the screens between now and September and it's so razor sharp and precise that it hums like a high voltage line.
DOUBLE AGENT is for everyone who loves spy movies but hates one-liners. Here, espionage isn't a rah-rah thrill ride, but a carnivorous hall of mirrors where people walk in, and husks walk out.