Secretly Greatly (2013)
은밀하게 위대하게

I wanted to like Secretly, Greatly - I truly did. The premise was intriguing and promised a lot of hijinks but laced with that change of tone into serious that I really love, the bunny ears lawyer is one of my favourite tropes after all and I have a not-so-secret fondness for Kim Soo Hyun.

Unfortunately, the movie ended up feeling like two, incompatible movies stitched hastily together. It was full of action and raw emotional moments but, without a solid, foundational concept to ground both of the former, ultimately ended up feeling directionless.

WARNING: Long, image-heavy and spoilers

Perhaps it's indicative of the futility that the movie seemed to ultimately posit that we never do find out why Won Ryuhwan spent two years pretending to be a village idiot in the slums. He's a highly trained warrior - one of the jewels of his county, if the flashbacks are to be believed. Why that village? Why wasn't he given any assignments in the two years? Why was he sent there at all? Wouldn't North Korea be a little more frugal with their manpower?

The robotic, too-literal approach he has towards his assignment, borne from a lifetime of living in that 'soldier mode' mentality, made his 'super serious spy' mode a lot funnier than his village idiot act.

Most of the 'spy' story was an excuse to play the fan service card. 

Because this is very, very important to the plot.

Hae-rang, the rocker guy, was the hardest to connect with emotionally. I was hoping that his failure at the auditions (thus undermining his entire 'cool guy' act) would be a point of hilarity and that the running joke would be that both Won and Hae-rang are fabulous at action hero violence but suck at their respective disguises.

As the movie continued, though, Hae-rang faded into the background because, like Won, he appeared to have been sent to South Korea for no apparent reason and that really stagnated the plot for me.

Then Hae-jin arrived and I wondered what was so special that this particular village needed three highly trained North Korean spies...and that question never got answered.

The subtext was heavy between Won and Hae-jin - I'm pretty sure it is put in there to appeal to the fan girls who enjoy the Korean equivalent of 'shounen-ai', guised under a hero-worshipping relationship, because there was heavy use of romance-style editing and framing.

Oh yes, the director knew what he was doing. 

Aside from his fanboyism of Won, Hae-jin was basically a ghost, with no sense that he even existed in the village, never mind under his 'schoolboy' disguise. Did he even go to school?

Admittedly, I chuckled at the casual references to: 'Should I kill him?' 'No!'

The main thing is that their respective 'disguises didn't seem to play any part in the storyline. The village idiot, schoolboy and rock star wannabe hang out on top of the convenience store helping to sort through anchovies and no one raises an eyebrow?


The village idiot portion of the movie would have made an interesting drama. The first and middle acts were promising, if slow - establishing depth in some villagers, showing the spies slowly adjusting to the village and its patchwork culture of clumsy kindness and gruff perseverance.

I appreciated that they did attempt to give the villagers more depth - my favourite was probably the actress who played Ran who did brilliantly in transitioning the goofy drunk mood into an old heartbreak resurfacing and whose relationship with Dong-gu felt the most fully realised.

The mutual care between the villagers was cute but just a little too...idealised? It was like the writers were trying really hard to show that these people are REALLY DECENT so that it seemed more like a caricature of the 'friendly village' trope than anything else.

Unfortunately, being a movie, there was simply not enough time to establish enough rapport between all the characters to lend significant gravitas to the subsequently tragic scenes, especially the relationship between Won and the shopkeeper ajumma.

I suppose it's because none of the villagers seemed to see through the Dong-gu disguise - it's like having friends who like you thinking you're someone else. It can never feel quite deep enough because while Won may have penetrated the hidden facets of the facade they show the world, they could not do the same to the 'real' him or connect with him on a level beyond kindness borne of pity.

So Won's last wish to 'go back' rang false for me and seemed more arbitrarily put in than anything. Go back to what? The writers had not truly explored his place in the village and why enjoyed literally living a 'simple' life.

The order to kill themselves comes in and the movie takes a dramatic swing into melodrama and I basically started tuning out. The third act felt like it had been cut off from a completely different movie and hastily stitched onto the end, especially since the entire village basically just disappeared for the last arc of the movie.

The scale of problems in the village (the odd gangster here and there) just could not be compatible with the SWAT team and police torture or whatever that followed and, worse, didn't feel like an organic progression of the first two acts. 

I don't like criticising child actors but...did their delivery not match the mood of the rest of the scene or what?

The seminal problem was that the writers were trying too hard to pile on the tragedy so they took all the elements of the spy story and upped them all to eleven

What will contribute to the sense of hopelessness? Let's have them not have a single mission in two years. What is the most 'tragic' thing that can happen? They're all told to commit suicide or be murdered on the first mission they're given. What makes things tragic to the max? They sacrifice themselves for each other! What will leave the viewer feeling the most terrible? Rocks fall, everyone dies!

It's not only inappropriate, considering they had a story they could have pulled off realistically without, say, the whole police subplot or the evil ajusshi guy, but all of those things piled on top of one after another in the final chase scene made things cheesy and leaves the viewer feeling cheated by the sheer pointlessness.

What was the point of him?? What was his deal?

My response to the end of the movie was basically: 'Are you kidding me?!'

Secretly, Greatly was a movie with lots of interesting potential but ruined by the lack of clarity in characters' motivations and plot.