The first half hour of “The Suspect” is dizzying and disorienting, but not because this South Korean spy thriller delves into the perplexities of relations with the North. (That comes later.) It’s because director Won Sin-yeon skillfully emulates the you-are-there-but-where-the-heck-is-that? style of the “Bourne” movies.
Like Jason Bourne, Ji (Gong Yoo) is on the run, with nearly everyone after him. Amid kinetic action sequences and cryptic flashbacks, Ji’s story gradually emerges: Trained as a North Korean superspy, he defected to the South after his wife and daughter were reportedly killed. There he worked as a driver, a choice of profession that foreshadows a couple of the more inventive car chases in recent movies.
Ji is framed for the murder of a prominent businessman with connections on both sides of the border. The former agent flees, but not far, staying in Seoul. To track him, the South Korean government reactivates Min (Park Hee-soon), “the best spy sniffer around.” He’s a hyper-macho colonel holding a grudge: He was removed from the field after Ji, then a North Korean operative, bested him during a face-off in Hong Kong.
Min correctly surmises that Ji remains in town because he’s on a mission. But that assignment, it’s eventually revealed, is not for either government. As if dodging a citywide dragnet weren’t tricky enough, Ji also intends to find the man he believes killed his wife and young daughter.
Actually, one or both of them may still be alive. But that’s information known only to the story’s true villains — men whom Min ultimately will decide he hates as much as Ji does. Luckily, both actors playing the competing agents are adept at conveying righteous anger.
Unsurprisingly, “The Suspect” turns out to be a tale of corruption within the ranks. There’s even a crusading freelance journalist, Choi (Yoo Da-in), who’s trying to document the whole conspiracy on video. She adds a trace of femininity to this testosterone-drunk fantasy, but her perpetually bleeding lip shows she gets knocked around just like the boys.
In addition to Choi’s news footage, Won chops simulated surveillance and command-center video into the icy-colored action footage, which employs the usual jittery camera shots and speedy edits. A former stuntman, the director likes to show the human body in extremis, whether surviving torture, evading execution or just taking a flying leap.
After all the punishment it delivers, “The Suspect” goes soft at the end, with not one but two fairy-tale endings. The first, if not both, of them will likely appeal more to Korean audiences than American ones. But most of what comes before should entertain any action buff who doesn’t mind a few subtitles with his gunplay, jump cuts and cold-eyed determination.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Rave Cinemas Centreville 12 and Cinemark Egyptian 24. Contains bloody violence, including torture. In Korean with subtitles.