SEOUL (Reuters) - When North Korean spy Pyo Jong-seong’s arms deal for Pyongyang goes wrong in Berlin, he knows it is time to flee with his wife from agents of the vengeful and isolated state - a country that recently said it was “in a state of war” with its neighbor.
Part of the thinking behind that belligerence, which has sent tensions on the Korean peninsula sky-rocketing, is on display in “The Berlin File,” known as Korea’s “Bourne Identity”, which is currently showing in the United States and Canada as well as drawing millions of viewers in South Korea.
While the story, with its thriller plot and action sequences, is set against a background of the demise of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and a fictional power struggle, it contains some elements that are far too real.
“I thought it would be special if I told a story of people who lived in a city that was a special symbol of the Cold War and remain trapped in that era in the present day,” said director Ryoo Seung-wan.
“Personally I feel honored that my work is compared with the Bourne series but did I deliberately imitate the series? No filmmaker would do so,” the 40-year-old Ryoo added.
Made for less than $10 million, small beer by Hollywood standards but a big sum for a South Korean movie, “The Berlin File” incorporates elements from the Bourne movies, using graphic action sequences and a visceral combat style against the gray background of the German capital, itself once divided as the Korean peninsula remains today.
It stars Ha Jung-woo, a huge force in domestic Korean films, and Gianna Jun, once known as “Korea’s sweetheart” for her romantic heroine roles.
“Since many Korean spy stories have been set in South Korea, there wasn’t much room left for expanding a story,” Ryoo said, explaining his decision to set the film in Berlin.
The film has attracted more than 7 million moviegoers in South Korea, according to the Korean Film Council, pulling in some 52.35 billion won ($47 million). It will open in Japan in July.
The story is not entirely fictional. Germany was long the setting of real life espionage between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
In one 1967 incident, South Korea’s then-Central Intelligence Agency said North Korean spies had attempted to suborn 194 South Koreans in Germany.
Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February resulted in toughened U.N. sanctions such as cracking down on the lifelines of North Korean economy, which is sustained by a number of illegal activities such as money laundering and arms deals with countries like Iran - both topics taken up in the movie.
The film is not the first South Korean attempt to address issues arising from the divisions on the peninsula. In the 1990s, “Shiri” addressed the difficult issue of reunification and became a huge hit.
But time has moved on and it is now possible to make a film about North and South Korea that is not as polarizing and does not portray all North Koreans as brutal ideologues, Ryoo said.
“In the film no one is good or evil, people exist who take a different stance and things happen when a person has a crack in his or her life-long faith that they believed was more important than themselves,” said the director.
Cultural critic Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of English Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, agreed that the movie highlighted a fundamental change in thinking.
“The movie treats South and North Korea fairly as nations, not the South as good and the North as bad. In that sense, it’s quite a first,” he said.
“True, there have been threats from North Korea and tensions are high, but the movie was able to open because the situation isn’t that serious,” he said. “If a clash were really impending, such a movie wouldn’t have opened.”
(Reporting By Jane Chung, editing by Elaine Lies)
The story corrects spelling of director's name in fourth paragraph