The buddy cop movie, a staple of US cinemas in the ’80s and ’90s, is alive and well in Korea, only it arrives with a little more seriousness and a lot more hand to hand combat. Kim Sung-hoon’s CONFIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT forces a North Korean detective Im Cheol-ryung (Hyun Bin) to team up with his South Korean counterpart Kang (Yoo Hae-jin) to avoid an international scandal.
Im’s former captain has stolen counterfeiting plates from a government factory and crossed the border into South Korea to make as much money as possible (literally). Im, fueled by revenge for a murdered wife, is still a loyal believer in his country’s ways, where at least everyone is equally poor. Kang, whose mission is to retrieve the plates before Im can return home with them, finds Im frustratingly incorruptible, and also better at his job than he is.
Although American audiences may never be able to appreciate the subtleties of this tale of two nations, a single people divided for years by an artificial border, none of that really matters to enjoy back street chase scenes and bare hand conflict that fills the search for the morally bankrupt Cha (Kim Joo-hyuk). Of course, our two leads start difficult strangers, and emerge at the end of the film as trusted allies, both appreciating the others methods and individuality.
Kang has reached that typical complacence in his job, skirting the rules and receiving little respect at home. He sees this detail as a chance for a raise. Im, on the other hand, seems to be doing his darndest to avoid personal relationships but finds himself pulled in by Kang’s family and their candidness. Along the way, Kang’s slack cop charm carries the film, with Im punctuating the drama with knock down drag out fighting – including one in which he beats someone with a wet roll of toilet paper. The film never degenerates into ridiculous unbelievable feats of fistwork so the scars of battle feel real and the action intense.
Conjuring up Walter Hill’s RED HEAT, but much more serious and realistic, CONFIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT works best when it forgets the larger backdrop and focuses on the two men, the case, and the way Im entering Kang’s life changes him (and his home). Both actors are imminently likeable and when the credits roll and move us a year into the future, suggesting a case where Kang must go to North Korea to work with Im on his turf, I couldn’t help but hope a real sequel is in the works.
CONFIDENTIAL ASSIGNMENT just screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival this last weekend in Montreal. The festival continues through August 2nd.