Director: Kim Deok-su
Cast: Kang Ye-won, Han Che-a, Jo Jae-yun, Kim Min-kyo, Namkoong Min
Runtime: 1 hr 51 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Sexual References)
Released By: Encore Films and Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 6 April 2017
Synopsis: 35-year-old Jang Young-sil (Kang Ye-won) has never held a full-time job her entire life, despite having countless qualifications. After being fired from her contract job at the National Security Agency, she accidentally discovers her ex-boss's (Jo Jae-yun) secret… The agency lost half a million dollars to a voice phishing scam because of him! Desperate for a job, Young-sil offers to go undercover at the phishing centre, and strikes a deal with her ex-boss. If she successfully retrieves the money without alerting the authorities, she will be given a permanent position at the agency. While undercover at the phishing centre, she meets foul-mouthed cop Na Jung-an (Han Chae-a) from the Intellectual Crimes Unit, who was assigned to infiltrate the organisation to uncover the identity of the mastermind behind its operations. The two reluctantly join forces, but each with different agendas. What will be the final outcome of their undercover mission?
True to its title, the Korean action-comedy ‘Part-Time Spy’ is only half as good as a spy movie. The titular agent here is Kang Ye-won’s National Security Agency (NSA) staff Jang Young-sil, who due to budgetary cuts across the whole of Government is asked by her boss Deputy Park (Jo Jae-yun) to leave three months before her two-year contract is up. By some strange twist of fate, Deputy Park falls victim to a voice phishing scam and ends up losing half a million dollars of Government funds at the same time; and after stumbling into his office in the middle of his fit of rage, Young-sil offers to help Deputy Park retrieve the money by going undercover at the company suspected of the scam, in exchange for a permanent position if she is successful. There, she forms an unlikely team with a real undercover agent Detective Na Jung-an (Han Chae-a) from the Intellectual Crimes Unit. Though starting off at loggerheads with each other (because they are each afraid that the other will compromise their respective mission objectives), the two ladies will eventually hit it off, become best pals and take down the masterminds behind the nefarious organization as a team.
You’d probably already sense that director Kim Deok-su’s sophomore feature is trying to be many things at the same time. It starts off highlighting the plight of contract workers, who try to shore up as many qualifications as necessary in between successive (usually unsuccessful) job interviews and odd jobs – hence the montage tracking Young-sil’s career history over a decade that sees her acquire certifications from telemarketing to livestock handling while making ends meet as a taxi driver. Then it becomes a 101 lesson on voice phishing, laying bare its tactics, techniques and mechanics as Young-sil is inducted into the company and given a rundown on just how to con people into giving up their money under various guises whether for investment, safekeeping or plain extortion. And last but not least, it is also a buddy comedy between the shy, diffident Young-sil and the short-fused, foul-mouthed Jung-an, who will learn to put aside their differences and differing personalities over the course of the movie to eventually bond over a girls’ night out of drinks and dancing and even matching tattoos.
As you can imagine, it doesn’t quite manage to be all three as successfully. Young-sil’s employment struggles and her concomitant disappointment upon her dismissal is keenly felt in the first act, especially over a phone call she has with her mother who tells her just how much her late father had wanted her to work in the civil service and her subsequent lie about doing well in her NSA job. That is however quickly forgotten in favour of the bumbling amateur spy routine, which even sees an ‘Infernal Affairs’ spoof that has Young-sil having a discreet rooftop rendezvous with Deputy Park. Oh yes, Young-sil’s inexperience as an undercover agent is played to the hilt here, as well as in contrast to the clearly more trained and experienced Detective Na. There is nothing here that hasn’t already been done in countless spy comedies from South Korea or otherwise, which is probably why the last third changes tack to become a celebration of ‘girl power’ as Jung-an’s fighting skills and Young-sil’s resourcefulness become complements out in the field against a dashing but slippery President Choi (Namkoong Min) and his lecherous second-in-command Mr Yang (Kim Min-kyo).
It should be said that there are no surprises just who the villains really are at any point. From the point that Young-sil is briefly interviewed and accepted as an employee of Daeheung, it is evident that both President Choi and Mr Yang are deliberate perpetrators here. In fact, the same can be said of every single Daeheung employee, i.e. that each knows their job is to trick people into transferring their money to some burner account based in a foreign country which they will not be able to retrieve or trace later on. As much as the film tries to hint at a Chairman who is really pulling the strings from all the way in China, there is little doubt that it is no more than a red herring to try to inject some narrative intrigue into the story – and the fact that we hardly buy it shows just how effective that is. That President Choi is ultimately a criminal at the end of the day also explains the half-heartedness of the supposed attraction that Young-sil has for him, which leads to an unexpected dinner date between the two over a meal of spicy chicken feet that has Young-sil sweating profusely from every pore.
If it isn’t obvious enough, not a lot that happens makes sense. For one, it is surprising that an organization like Daeheung would not even bother to run background checks on their prospective employees, which should automatically rule out someone like Young-sil. For another, it is completely laughable that Jung-an would use her real name at Daeheung, without even bothering with the semblance of a cover identity to disguise herself. Indeed, more important than storytelling or even plain logic here are the gags, but even on that level, there is barely enough to sustain your interest. Jung-an’s tough demeanor is intended as a running joke throughout the film, despite the fact that it seems incongruous with how she needs to be in order to successfully infiltrate Daeheung. Jang’s social awkwardness is another, which starts off amusing but grows increasingly one-note. Ditto her constantly exasperating exchanges with Deputy Park, which similarly grow tiresome by the time we get to the n-th time Young-sil calls her boss ‘Oppa’ as part of the cover.
In short, ‘Part-Time Spy’ as a movie is symptomatic of the issues about contract workers. Just as the latter often do, the movie tries to be everything at the same time without ever becoming truly skilful at anything. It starts off with a strong social slant, abandons it for crowd-pleasing laughs, realizes it is running out of steam and then switches to become an odd-couple team-up. But despite the committed efforts of the cast, there is nothing refreshing or new here, made worse by the lack of conviction of being a social satire, a spy spoof, or a buddy comedy. The fact that it doesn’t even bother to be any less straightforward or any more credible in its setup is also telling, and even more reason that it is ultimately responsible for its own plight. Like we said at the start, it is only half as good as a spy movie, or in fact any worthwhile movie for that matter, so let’s just say you’ll probably be better off without this moonlighter.
(Like its subject, this is half-hearted whether as social satire, spy spoof or buddy comedy, and therefore only half as good whichever way)
Review by Gabriel Chong