AMC Grapevine Mills has been running Korean films on a semi-regular basis for a while now, but Commitment, which starts there on Friday, is the first one that I’ve been able to review ahead of its opening. Though the Korean fare at Grapevine has been of highly variable quality, this spy thriller is really good entertainment, and it’s your best bet among this week’s new movies.
The story takes place in 2011, with various North Korean factions battling one another for power as leader Kim Jong-il’s health fails. Against that backdrop, a traitor’s son (Choi Seung-hyun) in Pyongyang decides to redeem his family name by enlisting as a spy for the government. His handlers send the 19-year-old to Seoul under the alias of Kang Dae-ho to pose as a high-school student and kill a North Korean assassin (Jeong Ho-bin) who’s been taking out other North Korean agents. He succeeds in eliminating the killer while evading a South Korean lawman (Yoon Je-moon), but that all proves to be child’s play compared with navigating the deadly political complications involved in his mission.
If you’re not familiar with Korean films, you may be surprised to find that the first third of this spy thriller plays more or less like a high-school drama, as Dae-ho falls into the role of protector for Hye-in (Han Ye-ri), a girl who’s targeted by school bullies and who just happens to share the same name as Dae-ho’s sister (Kim Yoo-jeong) up north. (The bullies eventually turn on Dae-ho, not knowing that he could kill them all with his bare hands. Interestingly, Dae-ho stoically takes an initial beating from them, until they insult him by calling him Chinese.) South Korea has come to value films that don’t fit cozily in the confines of a genre. Sometimes that leads to movies that zigzag for no reason, but here first-time director Park Hong-soo makes the disparate sections of this film seem like logical parts of a whole, especially when the bodies start piling up near the end. He also manages to avoid the mawkish sentimentality that plagues many Korean thrillers, keeping the momentum going to the movie’s inexorable conclusion.
His lead actor makes a bright impression too. Choi is a Korean pop singer and rapper (under the name of T.O.P.) who also has acting experience from his role in the war movie 71: Into the Fire. He’s an ethereally beautiful young man, and the film uses his appearance to put us off balance, as when a grandmotherly fellow agent (Lee Joo-sil) notes Dae-ho’s atrocious table manners: “You look like a nobleman, but you eat like a dog.” More seriously, Choi’s looks leave you unprepared for the credible martial-arts moves that he busts out in an early scene at a gym where Dae-ho brutally dispatches a boxing trainer and spy who pulls a knife on him. The same goes for his showdown with the assassin midway through. Director Park aids his star with some clever staging in the action sequences, particularly when Dae-ho locates a safehouse holding the assassin’s cohorts, filmed from the point of view of the spies as the unseen Dae-ho picks them off one by one.
If you’ve seen many Korean films, you know that in the flowering of South Korean cinema over the last 20 years or so, North Korean characters have gone from cardboard villains to conflicted antiheroes. Commitment doesn’t make any profound political statement, but it’s properly and informedly cynical toward North Korean conformity without succumbing to rah-rah South Korean patriotism. The film renders Dae-ho’s personal dilemma with a touch of romance, and while it could have used better chemistry between the actors, it’s still done lightly and skillfully. The ending is considerably less happy than Western viewers might be accustomed to, but nevertheless this is still a terrific piece of cinematic popcorn that’s worth recommending to moviegoers, whether they’re of Korean extraction or not.
Starring Choi Seung-hyun and Han Ye-ri. Directed by Park Hong-soo. Written by Kim Soo-yeong. Not rated.