At the outset, Noh Kyu-yeob’s “Unfinished” looks as if it will turn out to be another political thriller about inter-Korean relations. Its gloomy atmosphere and gritty visuals suggest, perhaps, another thinking man’s thriller like “The Spy Gone North.”
In essence, however, the film is a drama about a man and his family.
The story centers on Oh Young-min, a South Korean-born economist who lived in Cold War-era West Berlin until he was tricked into moving to North Korea and forced to work as a spy. In an attempt to escape the North, he asks for help from immigration officers at an airport in Copenhagen. He is turned over to the German authorities and briefly detained, but a freak accident separates Oh and his older daughter from his wife and younger daughter -- thus beginning his desperate attempt to retrieve his family from the clutches of North Korea’s secret service.
It is far from riveting as a thriller or action film: The villains are laughably lax in terms of security, Lee Beom-soo as Lee Young-min is no Liam Neeson in “Taken” and the overall action is substandard.
But the film’s focal point is none of those things. It focuses on the story of Oh, his relationship with his daughter and his struggles as an everyday man in an impossible situation.
Lee’s acting is superb and carries the entire film, which otherwise is bogged down by its dull message, less-than-impressive villains, one-dimensional characters and lame storyline.
The acting aside, it is pretty bland. In the first act, it looks like an adventure story about a man rescuing his family. Then it looks like a story between a man and his daughter in times of peril. Finally, it just focuses on the man.
The subplots are half-baked, and the film as a whole is predictable and dull. All the characters stay who they were at the beginning.
It is not a standout in any way, but not a terrible film either, thanks to strong acting both from the lead and the supporting cast -- the child actor Lee Hyun-jung as Oh’s daughter exceeds expectations. The film is just not that memorable.
But the biggest issue is not the film itself. It is the surrounding controversy, which has eclipsed discussions about the picture’s artistic merit.
The movie was inspired by the life of South Korean economist Oh Gil-nam, and the similarities between the two have given rise to disputes about the portrayal of real-life figures like renowned composer Yun I-sang.
Oh has claimed that Yun suggested to him that he move to North Korea and threatened him after his escape. The claims were made only after Yun’s death, and his bereaved family has denied them.
“The story needed an antagonist for Young-min. It has nothing to do with Yun,” Noh said, denying that the corresponding character in the film is Yun. “Only those two (Oh and Yun) would know the truth,” he added when asked about the allegations.
Another source of controversy is the fact that the flick relied on funding from the Park Geun-hye administration for much of its budget. It was revealed in the course of a government-civilian probe that Park had kept a blacklist of figures in the culture and entertainment scene who were deemed critical of the government, along with a whitelist of groups and individuals deemed pro-government.
Both Noh and main lead Lee denied that the film had benefited from favoritism on the part of the scandal-ridden government.
This, along with the aforementioned controversy surrounding its real-life inspirations, has sparked suspicion that it is an “anti-North film.”
Strictly from a cinematic perspective, the movie does not appear to depict any specific government or group in a positive manner. The South Korean agents, just like those of the North, are hell-bent on using Oh and show no interest in whether his family lives or dies.
“Unfinished” opens in local theaters on Nov.14.
By Yoon Min-sik