Sometimes fiction can be as illuminating as documentary. A pop culture film, by its very definition, offers a glimpse into the mindset of both those who made it and its intended audience. Watching “Red Dawn” or “Rambo 3,” for example, one gets a sense of the Cold War hysteria still prevalent amongst Americans in the early 1980s.
For those searching to understand a nation through its popular culture, the actual quality of a film is merely incidental. Such is the case with the South Korean film, “Spy Girl,” recently released to DVD.
Were this an American movie – and, given the wave of popularity of Asian films, we can’t rule out a Hollywood remake – “Girl” could and should be easily dismissed as bland teen mush, one of those boy-meets-girl-and-they-face-an-obstacle movies churned out by the dozen. But this isn’t an American movie; it’s from South Korea. Like everything else there seems to be, “Spy Girl” is rife with political overtones – the boy is a Seoul military conscriptee in his last days before boot camp, and the titular girl is a lovable North Korean spy.
Hyo-jin has been sent by North Korea across the DMZ to find a renegade spy who has embezzled money from the Kim regime. In an odd bit of product placement, she ends up working at a Burger King, where the local college boys instantly become enamored of her.
Go-bong, a military-bound dropout, becomes so amorous that he secretly photographs her and puts the pictures on the web. (Cultural difference noted: what seems horrifyingly creepy to the American audience must seem romantic to those in South Korea.) Though enraged that her cover may be blown, Hyo-jin still can’t resist the candy-sweet movie love Go-bong has for her… Surely by now the reader has concluded what the next 60 minutes of this wildly predictably movie will contain.
“Girl” is nothing more than a banal, formulaic, if slightly fun, movie. For anyone who’s not a South Korean schoolgirl, the film’s true worth is as a window into modern-day South Korea, particularly the changing attitudes of the younger generation.
For the past few years, sentiment has steadily been building in the Republic of Korea for an ease in tensions with the North. The current president, Roh Moo-hyun, was elected on such a platform. His Uri Party recently swept the parliamentary elections, establishing for the first time in the state’s history a government looking more for friendship than animosity with its neighbor. Uri, in a move that could revolutionize Korean politics, recently introduced a bill to abolish the National Security Law, which criminalizes cooperation with North Korea as treason, or “aiding the enemy.”
All of this is reflected in “Girl.” The evil North Korean spy is a typical South Korean movie archetype, but Hyo-jin is quite the opposite; she is honorable, caring and – a trait highly significant to Korean audiences – patriotic. She is, in fact, an idealistic young woman, honestly trying to do the right thing, but torn between love of her boyfriend and of her country. On the other hand, Go-bong, though no villain, is very much a slobbish buffoon. (Given his internet postings, American audiences might be tempted to say “sexual predator.”)
Reflecting a generation grappling with five decades of national division, the two are destined to be apart because of a political reality neither wanted nor fully understood by either.
“Spy Girl,” in its superficial way, reflects this new generation, which seems to have tired of the Cold War-style rivalries on their peninsula. The voiceover by Hyo-jin at the film’s end, directed at those she leaves behind when she returns home, could easily be directed by young South Koreans to their northern brethren: “I hope we can achieve reunification soon so that I can see you all again.”