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Review: 'The Spy' negotiates a tricky work-home balance

On the job, a middle-aged South Korean operative can work wonders, but he gets nowhere at home.

September 26, 2013
  • A scene from "The Spy."
A scene from "The Spy." (Handout )

There's a reason James Bond is still a bachelor: It means never having to choose between Mother England and a wife. In the action-comedy "The Spy: Undercover Operation," South Korea's most unassuming operative, middle-aged Chul-soo (Sul Kyung-gu), gets this lesson knocked into him while juggling espionage with the demands of his loudly suffering wife, Yeong-hui (Moon So-ri).

After costarring as different sets of doomed lovers in art-house auteur Lee Chang-dong's "Peppermint Candy" and "Oasis," veteran performers Sul and Moon devote their considerable talents to this more commercial effort directed by Lee Seung-jun.

As suggested by the ultra-generic title, the spy caper is convoluted and unmemorable: While Chul-soo pursues a high-profile North Korean defector, double agent Ryan (Daniel Henney) seduces Yeong-hui in revenge.

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But where the explosions fail, the sparks fly. In the opening scene, Chul-soo successfully frees several hostages from Somali pirates. But he has no luck applying those same negotiating skills to marital concord — in fact, his attempts to do so end with him on the floor, helpless as a turtle on its back.

While Sul whiplashes between national interests and domestic duties, Moon steals the film with her winsome depiction of a woman divided: the eager-to-please pushover in public and the hilarious harridan at home. Regrettably, the subtitles fail to capture Sul and Moon's witty wordplay — but their snappy, prickly chemistry is obvious to all.

—Inkoo Kang

"The Spy: Undercover Operation." No MPAA rating. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles; Regal La Habra, Fullerton.


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