Young North Korean Ryu Han (Kim Soo-hyun) is given a new name by the DPRK and assigned to infiltrate a small South Korean by posing as a simpleton in order to gather information on the local inhabitants.

Korean spy games go nutty.

The tension of having a hostile neighbour has been a constant source of drama for South Korean movies since the countries’ inception. Whether it be the fallen woman of The Hand of Destiny (1954), the mixed emotions of the Sunshine era film JSA (2001) or the demonisation of Shiri (1999), the spectre of North Korea is something that has too much resonance for the South Korean film industry to leave alone. Rarely, though, have they tried to blend the peninsula’s ongoing conflict with humour. Secretly, Greatly may be a good lesson as to why.

The narrative struggles when it tries to make its enemies both buffoons and bastards

Kim Soo-hyun from The Thieves plays undercover North Korean agent Won Ryu-hwan who has been assigned to be Dong-gu, the village idiot in a small, insignificant South Korean town. Part of a Communist spy network that not only keeps tabs on the local population but each other as well, Ryu-hwan, despite his martial expertise, excellent markmanship and superior intelligence, has drawn the short straw, which requires him to fall down at least once a day, regularly defecate in public and show no degree of intelligence. Pratfalls, 'spontaneous’ indiscretions and abuse by the old woman who owns the corner store where Dong-gu works provides lightweight laughs, as does the propaganda value of a long-term undercover comrade whose interest in South Korean girl groups is the only salve against missing his North Korean family.

Things start to get serious when the North Korean government requires Ryu-hwan to train some new infiltrators played by Park Ki-woong and Lee Hyun-woo. Park’s spy must pretend to be musically clueless wannabe punk rocker and Lee’s way too serious young man poses as a high school student. With mutual suspicion running rampant and an increased authoritarianism implemented to root out counter-revolutionaries, the comical hi-jinks gives way to a stygian tone that not only tests Ryu-hwan’s loyalty to the DPRK but is so jarring a wrench from the film’s comical set-up that it dramatically tests audience commitment to the film. The laughs evaporate completely as Secretly, Greatly becomes an increasingly pointless quagmire of violence. The narrative struggles when it tries to make its enemies both buffoons and bastards and therefore loses both laughs and credibility in the process.

How this messy, confused film accrued $45 million (and climbing) at the Korean Box office was clarified when I saw the film at PiFan (Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival). Present for a 'guest visit’ were director Jang Chul-soo and three of the film’s actors. It wasn’t the director or its main actor, or even starlet Lee Chae-yeong that the crowd was there to see. Actress Lee even playfully apologised for not being as pretty as her co-star, rising TV heartthrob Lee Hyun-woo, who was able to send the young female audience into swoons and pic-snapping overdrive with a simple lift of his eyebrow. Actor Lee was the key factor in catapulting Secretly, Greatly to mega-hit status in Korea and everyone knew it. At the end of the Q&A, he slyly sang a love song as he strolled off the stage. The place erupted. Though a reasonable on-screen presence, Lee better enjoy his moment while he can. In years hence, when 'his moment’ has passed, the film’s popularity will seem inexplicable.