The story: South Korean Park Seok-young (Hwang Jung-min) is recruited to spy on North Korea's nuclear programme in 1992 and his handler is the politically adroit Choi Hak-sung (Cho Jin-woong). Park, codenamed Black Venus, is tasked to make contact with official Ri Myung Woon (Lee Sung-min), one of the few people with access to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (Gi Ju-bong). The film is loosely based on the true story of Park Chae-seo, a South Korean agent who infiltrated the North's nuclear facilities.
For much of the movie, The Spy Gone North unfolds as a competent espionage thriller. Then the final 30 minutes elevate it to something more - a compelling tale of murky politics and unlikely friendship.
The tension comes from the fraught atmosphere of mistrust and barely-kept-in-check hostility between North and South Korea. Any moment, masks could be ripped off and a gun could go off.
There is also the tricky mission at hand.
Can Park stay one step ahead of the North Koreans? Can he convince the ambitious and intimidating security official Jung (Ju Ji-hoon) of his businessman identity? How is he going to get to the North's nuclear facility? The last has added resonance for audiences today given ongoing efforts in getting North Korea to denuclearise.
The chameleonic Hwang is well-cast as the central spy. The actor is a major box-office draw in South Korea and is at ease in a range of genres from romantic melodrama You Are My Sunshine (2005) to crime comedy A Violent Prosecutor (2016). Here, he gets to be serious and analytical with his handler and a glib, almost buffoonish, businessman to the rest of the world.
He is well-matched by Lee (Misaeng: Incomplete Life, 2014) as Ri, who is at first inscrutable but later reveals hidden layers. Ju (Princess Hours, 2006) is effectively cold and menacing as the military officer.
REVIEW / DRAMA THRILLER
THE SPY GONE NORTH (PG13)
137 minutes/Opens Sept 6/4 stars
Director and co-writer Yoon Jong-bin (Kundo: Age Of The Rampant, 2014) tells the story with a sure hand. He also handles the surreal scene of Park meeting with Kim Jong Il for the first time deftly, adding a touch of humour with a fluffy white dog which accompanies the leader.
Things get really riveting in the last act when larger forces come into play, proving the cynics' case that politics makes for the strangest of bedfellows and the fundamental aim of those in power is to stay in power.