Story: Lim Byeong-ho (Han Suk-kyu) works for the north Korean secret service and flees to West-Berlin
in the beginning of the 1980s in order to get to South Korea from there. However, the KCIA believes Lim to be
a north Korean spy who only pretends to have escaped his country to finally live in peace. Despite harsh
torture measures Lim sticks to his story and eventually is instrumentalized by Baek (Jeon Ho-jin) for the aims
of the south Korean government. He trains south Korean spies in a training camp and even gets promoted so that
he is henceforth responsible for information analytics at the secret service. That's exactly the place Lim
wants to be as he is in fact a north Korean spy who has to accomplish an important mission in enemy territory.
His only contact is the female radiocaster Yoon Soo-mi (Ko So-young), who has lived in South Korea since her
birth, yet has sworn allegiance to the north Korean neighbor. But north Korean spies are dispensable and
when one day the north Korean government doubts Lim's and Yoon's loyalty, the two have to realize that they
might be put out of action, soon...
Review: "Double Agent" is an espionage thriller without really being one, a character study that
stalls right at the beginning, simply said a movie that doesn't really know which direction to go. For
an espionage thriller "Double Agent" proves to lack the necessary tension and it's pacing is too
serene. The movie rather focuses on the north Korean spy Lim, but the character illumination always
seems to be done under dim light and therefore remains everything but appropriate. We only owe it
Han Suk-kyu's ("Christmas in August", "Shiri") subtle performance that Lim is far more complex than
what the screen play actually made him. Therefore, in the end, this thriller with a promising plot proves to be
a plain disappointment, which lacks elan, wit and a deeper meaning. That's even the more
frustrating as the producers actually had in mind to create an interesting drama, but then aimed at
copying the success of "Shiri". This mixture of two different genres doesn't add up, though.
The movie's premise is actually quite interesting. Surely not being the first or last movie to deal with the difficult topic of North and South Korea's mutual relationship director Kim Hyeon-jeong transports the conflict into the 80s. The problem with such a decision is that you run the risk of losing the audience if you handle the subject improperly, as 30 years seperates the viewer from the events on screen too much emotional-wise. A character to root for could solve the problem, but can a north Korean spy really serve as such a figure? No, of course not, and that's exactly the problem director Kim maneuvers himself into. Capturing the zeitgeist is one thing, but also creating a good movie another. The director might have missed that one.
Yet, there are also some positive aspects to be mentioned. For example there is the introduction scene in shape of a north Korean military parade in which Han Suk-kyu has been digitally inserted perfectly. Moreover, we get to see the feared interrogation and torture methods of the south Korean secret service KCIA, which had their headquarters in Namsan during the 70s/80s. Those who went to Namsan at that time were ordered to come there for interrogation purposes. A small episode with a student also shows how tenaciously and savage south Korean government was when it came to hunting down communists. This is important information that illuminates the circumstances at that time. There is one scene in which Lim is presented to south Korean students, as some form of propaganda that North Koreans are starving and suffering in their own country so that they want to escape to the great capitalistic South Korea. During that scene Lim shows them the stereotypical picture of a North Korean they expect and want to see. However, the subject of political instrumentalization could have been dealt with more extensively.
Tension-wise you really shouldn't expect too much of "Double Agent". Most of the time the film simply flows by and you never really know if it actually wants to get somewhere. There is no real story that unfolds, and furthermore, the movie lacks the sort of wit which make espionage-thrillers so captivating in the first place. There are no gadgets coming into play, no thrilling information extraction missions, but simply a character study of a north Korean spy, who effortlessly manages to withstand the amenities of South Korea's consume- and pleasure-centered society. All of this just lacks necessary depth and apparently Lim's subtle love story with Yoon was supposed to change that. But this doesn't work out either. Ko So-young ("APT") at no time can act on the same level as Han Suk-kyu. Her character remains too shallow and uninteresting.
"Double Agent" drags a lot at certain points and emotionally is as cold as a fridge. The love story can't change that and the viewer simply misses someone he can cheer for. Han's subtlety can't save the movie from being plain boring at times. The attempt to make up lost ground with a supposedly emotional ending is doomed to fail, of course, even though the finale surely stands as the movie's highlight. Technically the movie delivers only modest achievements, too, and so we discontendedly have to ask if it realy wasn't possible to make more out of the material. The answer is self-evident: You could have done better. Yet, "Double Agent" neither manages to be a thrilling espionage thriller nor an interesting character drama.