On the tails of his award-winning role as Yeong-dal in MBC drama Tri-angle, Kim Jaejoong tries his hand as a government agent in espionage drama SPY. Based on the Israeli show The Gordin Cell, SPY follows Kim Sun-woo, who is one of the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) top agents, and his mother Kim Hye-rim (played by Bae Jong-ok), a former Chinese spy gathering information for Korea. Their lives become complexly intertwined when Hye-rim’s past comes knocking on her front door.
Within the first two and a half minutes of the show, we are plunged headfirst into the action. Sun-woo gets into a car with a colleague, but before they can drive off, the car is suddenly jackknifed by a garbage truck. Both Sun-woo and his colleague are badly injured. A man steps from the garbage truck and tells his men to make it look like a robbery gone wrong. They steal wallets and watches and shank Sun-woo’s colleague. The mysterious man, who we learn to be Hwang Ki-chul (played by Yu Oh-seong), an old colleague of Hye-rim’s, takes a look at Sun-woo’s wallet. From that moment forward, the audience must at least realize this man means to do the family harm.
Ki-chul confronts Hye-rim at her front door, coming into her home with the same chill gait of antagonists we see in most spy thrillers. He claims that he’s there to give her a job, and he demands it of her in the most sinister way—by threatening her family. Despite carrying out his bidding, it’s never that easy to satisfy a man thirsty for revenge. Hwang Ki-chul calls Hye-rim after she’s fulfilled her duty (planting a bomb at a crowded train station) and explains what her real mission is: to hand over her son, Sun-woo.
The plot escalates in complexity after Ki-chul reveals that Sun-woo is, in fact, an agent working for the NIS. Both mother and son are leading double lives. However, the repercussions of their attempts at maintaining their respective covers will eventually prove quite disastrous.
Hye-rim tells Ki-chul that she can’t just let him have Sun-woo, and her devoted husband, Woo-seok (Jung Won-joong) proposes a compromise — they’ll take Sun-woo’s place. It’s here that we realize that Ki-chul is not working of his own will. Someone above him is calling the shots. Otherwise he would’ve just done away with Hye-rim and Woo-seok altogether and taken Sun-woo anyway. Ki-chul decides to accept Hye-rim and Woo-seok’s proposal and tells her to plant hacking software in Sun-woo’s phone and computer and follow his every move, reporting any and all details about his whereabouts, especially his job. It’s apparent the information he wants isn’t necessarily about Sun-woo, rather his higher-ups are.
Hye-rim and Woo-seok tail Sun-woo at a safe distance in a rental car, listening in to a phone conversation that takes place while Sun-woo is visiting his girlfriend. Hye-rim hears about the NIS’s plans to begin a big operation and decides to erase the tape in an attempt to stay a step ahead of Ki-chul. Perhaps her years away from espionage and her concern as a mother has weakened her intuition, but to believe that her actions aren’t in some way being recorded is a grave error on her part.
In the midst of Hye-rim scrambling to keep her past safely hidden from her children, Sun-woo is desperate to find the man who murdered his partner. His need for vengeance coincides with the agency’s current case. A liaison affiliated with the Labor Party, a defector from North Korea named Jo Soo-yeon (Chae Soo-bin), turns herself in to avoid being murdered. Sun-woo learns that the person Soo-yeon worked for was the same man who killed his partner.
In the end, the operation goes sour. Soo-yeon is murdered, and we all know who’s behind it. Ki-chul is always one step ahead of both the NIS and Hye-rim. He calls her and confirms for everyone that her carelessness has cost her dearly. Ki-chul’s killed the NIS’ informant and is now going to take Sun-woo away from her by force.
In the midst of the action, of course, there’s a love plot. Lee Yun-jin (Ko Sung-hee) is a university student who works at a small travel agency. Sun-woo’s mother is already suspicious of her. She has a kind face and an overt innocence; however, that sets her character up to be easily identified as someone of interest as the story progresses. Through Sun-woo and Yun-jin’s interactions, it’s clear their relationship is one built on affection and long-standing trust. However, Yoon-jin’s body language suggests she’s obviously a) not comfortable talking to her lover about, and b) is desperately trying to keep hidden.
Though there are some who weren’t too happy with the casting of Sung-hee as the female lead, it’s clear the on-screen chemistry between she and Jaejoong works. Their relationship breaks the mold of the few dramas I’ve watched in that the romantic leads are already very firmly involved and have no need for the awkward, oftentimes cliché hijinks of two usually stock characters. Their familiarity needed to be believable from their very first scene together. Sung-hee and Jaejoong succeed in that aspect. They seem natural with each other, comfortable sharing the same space. That familiarity will go a long way in selling the conflict that arises as the series progresses.
That’s quite a lot of information in the first four episodes. SPY’s plot is definitely complex. It remains to be seen if that complexity will prove to be a hindrance. However, at the close of episode four, we get a sense that the action will escalate, and we’ll get a deeper understanding of each character’s motivation and how that will propel the plot forward. At the moment, the only person not overtly suspect is Hye-rim’s husband. Hopefully, the amount of information screenwriters Han Sang-woon and Lee Kang have dumped into these early episodes leaves enough in the plotline for the show to remain fresh through its duration.
Comparisons are obviously going to be drawn between Jaejoong’s SPY and bandmate Yoochun’s 3 Days. After all, both are espionage dramas where the dutiful lead character is the scapegoat caught in a political intrigue. Both shows even share cast members, both Kim Min-jae and Lee Dae-yeon appearing in the dramas. However, one thing the writer of 3 Days did right was have the whole series written two years prior to the first episode. It may have lagged in an episode or two, but nothing was extraneous, and we never ran out of plot. One storyline pervaded throughout without any side stories to distract from it, and we ended neatly at episode sixteen. I sincerely hope SPY’s writers have taken series length into consideration and have spaced out the information in a way that’s both logical and fitting.
I’m also hoping the romance doesn’t overtake the actual core of the drama, which ultimately seems to be the mother’s past and how it’s going to affect the rest of her family. Thus far it seems SPY isn’t about Sun-woo, but rather his mother, and that’s most definitely something I can be on board for.
There are also fleeting similarities between SPY and its critically acclaimed predecessor, IRIS. As with the Lee Byung-hun led thriller, the Director of the NIS (Lee Dae-yeon) is working closely with forces in North Korea. This is a common theme in most action dramas whose setting is the inner workings of the government. There seems to be no shortage of people in power willing to sell out their own country for money, arms, or anything else that will provide them a false sense of elevated power. And there’s also no shortage of people just below them hoping to get a slice of that power and recognition. Team Leader Song Joong-hyuk (Kim Min-jae) and the NIS Director are all too ready to use Sun-woo as a sacrificial lamb in the event something happens to compromise their operation.
SPY’s action will no doubt keep those on the fence along for the ride long enough to see if it delivers on all its flash and somewhat convoluted writing. SPY is actually quite brutal. Within the first two minutes, someone is stabbed to death, and we later find out Soo-yeon’s comrades were being burned alive by the same man who orchestrated the car accident resulting in a dead field agent and Sun-woo’s injuries. It earns its 15+ rating, but it doesn’t step beyond the bounds of that, keeping any graphic violence to a minimum, telling us the story through a bit of exposition and “fade-to-black” scenes that hide anything truly grisly.
I will say this. SPY is already an improvement from Jaejoong’s last drama. Tri-angle won him recognition for his noticeably improved acting skills at the Seventh Korean Drama Awards, and also proved to be a successful vehicle for Yim Si-wan. But the show itself, as with Dr. Jin, wasn’t nominated for much else. Admittedly, Jaejoong’s dramas after Protect the Boss have been rather disappointing. However, SPY holds promise, the shooting style is sharper, the angles cleaner and far less unnecessarily dramatic. At the very least, the family dynamic is incredibly believable and allows the audience to connect almost instantly with the deceptively normal interactions between family members.
What are your impressions of episodes of SPY’s first few episodes?