“Secretly, Greatly” (은밀하게 위대하게)

Secretly Greatly

By Jae-Ha Kim
March 9, 2016

3 stars

Lieutenant Won Ryu-Hwan / Bang Dong-Gu (played by Kim Soo-Hyun)
Rhee Hae-Rang (played by Park Ki-Woong)
Rhee Hae-Jin  (played by Lee Hyun-Woo)

“Secretly, Greatly” starts off as a comedy and veers off into a drama with a graphic, violent ending. Had the film stuck to one genre, the result would’ve been more cohesive and effective. Still, it’s a worthwhile film that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

Lieutenant Won Ryu-Hwan is an elite North Korean agent sent on an undercover mission to South Korea. It’s not clear why his handlers in Pyongyang have dropped him into the remote countryside to gather intelligence, but he has spent two years there waiting to be sent on a covert mission that would bring glory to his homeland.

secretly_greatly_North Korea

From here on out, I’m going to refer to Lieutenant Won as Dong-Gu — the name he was given for his mission.

During the day, he deftly passes himself off as the dim-witted simpleton who works at Soon-Im’s corner store. He spends his day sweeping and running errands for her. When the day is over, he heads to her house, which she shares with her grown son, Doo-Seok. At dinner time, he cackles to himself as he sneaks extra meat into his rice bowl. This would’ve been a punishable offense in North Korea. But even if Soon-Im had caught him in the act, she wouldn’t have cared. She is always encouraging him to eat more.

Following orders from Pyongyang, he falls down the stairs regularly, urinates in the streets every two weeks and defecates in public at least twice a year. He is ordered to do this when he has an audience, so that people will believe his cover.

After all, who would think that a bumbling fool like him looked like this underneath his fugly green tracksuit? (By the way, you’re welcome!)


Watching the neighborhood children throw rocks at Dong-Gu and verbally abuse him was actually more troubling to me than seeing him later in combat. No one seemed to think it was wrong for people to treat the mentally handicapped man so cruelly.

Doo-Seok was the exception. Not realizing that his mother’s employee is a highly trained spy, he tries to teach Dong-Gu marital arts and boxing. Later, after he has been beaten up by some bad men who want his mother to use their grocery supplier, Doo-Seok brags to Dong-Gu about his prowess, not realizing that Dong-Gu was responsible for saving his life. As the two talk, Doo-Seok tells him that even after Soon-Im dies, Dong-Gu will never have to worry about being alone. They are family, he says, he and will take care of Dong-Gu.

Eventually, North Korea sends two more young agents to his village. The illegitimate son of a general, Hae-Rang had trained with Ryu-Hwan in North Korea and requested this assignment where his cover will be to portray an aspiring musician. Hae-Jin had once been Dong-Gu’s underling and still idolizes him. He was sent over to infiltrate the local high school.

Though Hae-Jin views Dong-Gu’s growing concern for his neighbors as a sign of weakness, he also is Dong-Gu’s biggest champion. (When Dong-Gu sets out to wash blankets, Hae-Jin literally steps in, saying that he will do it, since doing laundry is a chore that’s a highly-decorated hero shouldn’t be bothered with).

The two share a funny covert mission of their own after Dong-Gu sees a woman he likes being sexually harassed by her boss. The boss tells her that he will fire her if she resists. Since killing him would only draw attention to them, Dong-Gu comes up with another plan. They hunt him down and force him to shoot a video wearing women’s under garments. If he fires her, they will release the video.

Hae-Jin, who has seen Dong-Gu at his most fierce, says, “I didn’t realize you were this scary.”


__________Hae-Rang____________   _Ryu-Hwan/Dong-Gu_________ ___Hae-Jin

From here, the movie turns dark fast.

Since childhood, each of the them had been indoctrinated to never question authority. So when they learn that the North Korean government is dismantling their elite unit and wants them to kill each other and then commit suicide, they accept their fate.

Dong-Gu says that he is proud to do his duty and die for his country. But … it’s conditional. He will do so as long as they continue to take care of his mother. When he discovers that his country wasn’t nearly as loyal to him as he thought, it’s the first time that he considers his options.

The ending isn’t one that I had wished for. But given the direction the film had taken during the second half, it wasn’t surprising.

Directed by Jang Cheol-Soo, the film is based on a webtoon series by Hun. Many of the fight scenes are brilliantly choreographed and Kim Soo-Hyun shows impressive range in his dual portrayal.

You may recognize:

Fans of the “Answer Me 1994” and “Answer Me 1988” will recognize Kim Sung-Kyun, who plays the police leader who is trying to help the trio of spies from being executed. A wonderfully expressive actor, Kim played a college student in the former and the father of a high school student in the latter.

Release date: June 5, 2013.

Running time: 123 minutes.

Spoiler alert:

On what he believes will be his last day in South Korea, Dong-Gu gets a sharp haircut, puts on the black suit he arrived in and stops speaking like the village idiot. At this point, Kim Soo-Hyun (the actor who plays him) looks a lot like he does in “My Love From Another Star.” Though he clearly doesn’t act or sound subservient anymore, none of his neighbors wonders why.

For instance, he gives all the money he had saved up to Jeom-Ran. Seven years ago, when she was 18, she gave birth to a boy. Against her wishes, her parents sent the baby to an adoption agency, where he was adopted by an American couple. Dong-Gu found the address of the child and tells her to go to America and be reunited with her son.

When Dong-Gu learns that his superiors have not taken care of his mother and are, in fact, responsible for her death, all bets are off. He knows that he will die, but he doesn’t give them the satisfaction of committing suicide.

As he lays bleeding and dying, he clutches the bank book that Soon-Im had given him. He hadn’t known it, but she had been saving money for his future ever since he started working for her. She had earmarked some of it for his future wedding. Losing the money meant nothing to him. However, losing the only mother figure who was left was heartbreaking.

To get over the depressing ending, I recommend watching Kim Soo-Hyun and Lee Hyun-Woo guest starring on the reality series, “Running Man.” It’s a super fun episode. The series makes clever references to the movie and has Kim and Lee wear track suits, just as they did in much of “Secretly, Greatly.”

@2016 Jae-Ha Kim | All Rights Reserved

Comments (8)

  1. Renee Schneidewind says:

    It’s kind of a goofy movie right? Lol

  2. Whatched it just yesterday. It had pretty much every genre inside. The actors did a great job.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      The actors were all fantastic. I would’ve preferred if it stuck to one genre (comedy or spy thriller etc.), but I enjoyed it overall!

      • Mohamed Asif Ali says:

        Yes, I was hoping the same before I started but it was rather entertaining in a different way. Any more similar suggestions, if you know?

        • Jae-Ha Kim says:

          You can check out my reviews here to see if any of these may pique your interest. But if you liked “Secretly Greatly,” you may also want to watch “Shiri,” “Thieves” and “Ghost.”

          (Click on the word “here” to be taken directly to the link (or click on my name in red above).

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