Secretly, Greatly (은밀하게 위대하게) is responsible for breaking several notable records in Korean cinematic history upon release. The film surpassed all expectations to earn the biggest opening day for a domestic film with 497,560 admissions; the following day another benchmark was set as it scored a whopping 919,035 admissions, the largest haul in a single day for a Korean film. With such an impressive start, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Secretly, Greatly took only 36 hours to pass the coveted one million admissions milestone, the fastest Korean film to do so. And to cap it all off, the film won the Citizen’s Choice Award at the 2013 Puchon International Film Festival.
With such incredible success it would be reasonable to assume that Secretly, Greatly must therefore be an outstanding piece of cinema, but unfortunately that is far from the truth. While it begins confidently, the film quickly becomes submerged beneath pointless supporting characters and melodrama, with the belated action sequences and nationalist agenda bland and uninspiring. Competently directed by Jang Cheol-soo (장철수) yet lacking in substance, Secretly, Greatly is ultimately only for fans of the original webcomic and the extremely handsome lead actors.
North Korean soldier Won Ryu-hwan (Kim Soo-hyeon (김수현) has trained relentlessly to be the best in his unit, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. His superiors give Ryu-hwan a mission – to infiltrate South Korea under the cover identity of Dong-gu, the mentally ill fool of a shanty town, and to await further instructions. Taking to his new identity with patriotism and verve, Ryu-hwan slowly becomes disillusioned as time passes and with no word from his homeland. Yet one day out of the blue rival Northern soldier Ri Hae-rang (Park Ki-woong (박기웅) shows up in the neighbourhood, sporting a wannabe rocker identity. Adding further distress, junior soldier Ri Hae-jin (Lee Hyun-woo (이현우) also appears as a high school student. Yet just as the former rivals begin to form a brotherhood, their country calls them into action but their hearts and minds pull them in different directions.
Secretly, Greatly begins well, as Ryu-hwan is given orders by a scarred and scary general on a dark and snowy desolate beach. The foreboding sense of danger is wonderfully and skillfully undermined as the film then cuts to his new identity as Dong-gu, and the harassment and ridicule he experiences from the local townspeople. The editing is superb during these scenes as everything Dong-gu does, from falling over to sneezing, is all meticulously planned but results in physical comedy, and is highly entertaining to watch. The humour derived from the great contrast is amusing, especially in watching Dong-gu being humiliated despite his impressive skill set.
Yet once the opening has passed, the film very quickly becomes incredibly tedious. In the attempt to show Ryu-hwan’s life is far removed from the glory he imagined, he is inundated with bland, everyday problems. Often these problems are not even his, but those of the local community. The variety of inhabitants that are introduced into the story are completely one-dimensional and serve no purpose other than to provide momentary distractions for Ryu-hwan. Cliches and stereotypes abound, featuring the struggling single mother, the high school bully, the sexy girl with a heart of gold, and so on. None of them are developed into interesting characters, and the sheer number of them halts any development of the main protagonists themselves. Rather, their inclusion instigates a number of short stories that offer brief instances of comedy and/or drama, before being completely forgettable.
Likewise, the addition of wannabe rocker Hae-rang is a wholly wasted opportunity to initiate rivalry and bring some kind of direction to the wandering narrative. Hae-jin fares much better upon entry to the community, instigating mystery and action which is welcome. Yet that too quickly disintegrates as the three forge an unlikely kinship at a community picnic, such is the excitement within the shanty town for the spies.
The aimless story finally shifts gears in the final act as a North Korean general begins a special protocol, forcing Secretly, Greatly back into becoming an action film. Yet for three supposedly top agents the action is very dull and lacking in thrills, while the additional melodrama doesn’t carry any weight. In attempting to please all factions of the audience with elements from all genres, Secretly, Greatly manages to ultimately satisfy no-one.
Secretly, Greatly (은밀하게 위대하게) is a record breaking film, although unfortunately that doesn’t mean that it’s of high quality. While competently directed by Jang Cheol-soo (장철수) and with a fun opening, things quickly become tedious due to an array of one dimensional stereotypes that flit throughout the aimless narrative, while the drama and action are bland and uninspired. Secretly, Greatly’s successes seems to be based on fans of the original comic strip stories and of handsome actors Kim Soo-hyeon, Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo, as there is little else to recommend.