The much-awaited star-studded Korean spy thriller has finally dropped on Netflix. After a rather slow and difficult year for Korean movies (largely due to COVID obstacles), could Yaksha: Ruthless Operations finally be the adrenaline shot that jolts us all back into Korean genre cinema?
It certainly looks like it.
Starring familiar Hallyu faces Sol Kyung-gu (Oasis), Park Hae-soo (Squid Game), and Jinyoung (from GOT-7 and He is Psychometric), Yaksha is a violently fun spy caper among East Asian spies, double agents, and all their unpredictable ilk.
We enter into their dangerous world via prosecutor Han Ji-hoon (Park Hae-soo) who has been "exiled" into China for being unable to win a rather important case. Han believes he is only on an internal auditing mission for the National Intelligence Service, but when he walks right into the bullet-happy operations of "branch manager" Ji Kang-in (Sol Kyung-gu) code named "Yaksha," he realizes he's walked right into a tenuous web of East Asian espionage. With all the Japanese, North Koreans, Russians, and Chinese in play, Han must learn to get along with Yaksha and his black ops crew so they can retrieve the most volatile document in their business and hopefully live to tell the tale.
Drenched in neon light and punctuated with bombastic shootouts and fight scenes, Yaksha ticks all the boxes of a genre spy thriller while remaining entertaining and engrossing from start to finish. While the plot does get quite messy around the middle and red herrings get thrown about, Yaksha largely stays in its own neon-lit lane and doesn't shy away from the big explosions and betrayals we've all come to expect from big-budget Korean spy thrillers.
For more Sol Kyung-gu
Sol Kyung-gu is one of the most admired and respected Korean actors working today. As the titular Yaksha, he inhabits the world-weary spy like second skin. This comes as no surprise for long-time fans, as his performances and works are literally taught in Korean film classes. Some of his most notable works are:
Peppermint Candy (1999)
Sol Kyung-gu's career breakthrough came when he played a man who witnesses South Korea undergo two decades of historical upheaval. We see his character live through major Korean events such as the Gwangju massacre and the Asian financial crisis. For his exhaustive portrayal, he won the first of his many awards, a Blue Dragon award for Best Actor.
The film's narrative style is also interesting. As the second work from legendary director Lee Chang-dong, it is divided into 7 sections but told in a reverse manner. For its outstanding storytelling and unique format, Peppermint Candy was ranked 12th by The Guardian in its list of classics of modern Korean cinema.
Sol Kyung-gu reunites with Peppermint Candy director Lee Chang-dong to make Oasis, a critically beloved film that would would go on to win him the Silver Lion for Lee at the Venice Film Festival. He plays a mildly mentally disabled man who has just been released from jail and has a relationship with a woman with severe cerebral palsy. The film looks at how people perceive their unlikely romance, and how the public treats the differently abled.
Oasis would go on to win an impressive number of film festival trophies around the world. At home, it would win the the Baeksang Arts Awards for Best Film and Best Director in 2003.
For more Park Hae-soo
Squid Game (2021)
As Player 218, Park Hae-soo burst into the international scene with his nuanced portrayal of an intellectual elite forced to play death games to pay off his debt. If you still haven't watched an episode of the biggest Netflix show on the planet, but have seen Park Hae-soo play up his righteous (and annoying) prosecutor role to the hilt in Yaksha, then don't deprive yourself from seeing him in Squid Game as one of the best morally grey characters on television.
Prison Playbook (2017)
Park Hae-soo shows off his tender side as a famous baseball star falls from grace when he is sent to jail for a year. Despite being a top athlete, he quickly realizes there is more to learn in life, and his (mis)adventures with the offbeat characters he meets in prison are portrayed with warmth and humor all throughout the show.
If you want more Korean spy thrillers...
When your country lives under constant threat from your Northern and Eastern neighbors, a plethora of spy movies will undoubtedly make up a large part of your cinematic repertoire. Below are some of the more popular spy thrillers from South Korea:
The Spy Gone North (2018)
Blockbuster darling Hwang Jung-min stars as South Korean spy "Black Venus" who is tasked to acquire North Korea's nuclear plans. Posing as a businessman, the movie does a splendid job at spinning the taut and tension-filled web that Black Venus has to navigate in the North. But after all the tension, what he discovers at the end of all his espionage may be more explosive than all the nuclear weapons the North keeps.
Age of Shadows (2016)
Gong Yoo (Goblin) and Song Kang-ho (Parasite) lead this historical espionage caper that takes us back to Shanghai and Seoul in the 1920s. Selected as the South Korean entry into the 89th Academy Awards, Age of Shadows was praised for the sleek performances of all its leads, as well as the tight script about the Korean resistance that proved war makes traitors out of the best men.
The Berlin File (2013)
Other blockbuster darlings Ha Jung-woo and Jun Ji-yun (My Sassy Girl) star as a North Korean agent and his translator wife who have been betrayed in a bungled weapons deal. Now on the run, they must survive assassins dispatched to get them, and eventually, must survive each other. The film has been praised for its spectacular fight scenes. To date, it is one of the highest-grossing and most-watched genre flicks of South Korean cinema.
Confidential Assignment (2017)
Hyun Bin (Crash Landing on You) is in fine form as a North Korean detective tasked to capture a crime boss who has fled into South Korea. Because of protocol, he has to work with a naïve South Korean counterpart. This mismatched-buddy-cop flick mixes both action and comedic elements, and makes for a fine weekend watch.
Steel Rain (2017) and Steel Rain 2: Summit (2020)
Jung Woo-sung stars in this classic brink-of-war action film that dares to give us an alternative future where North and South Korea have to get along without American intervention. In the Steel Rain universe, America can't save any of us, and in the movie, South Korea shows how they would save the world by themselves.
* all movie recommendations are streamed via other sites
Wild Card Recommendation
If you're looking for something totally unrelated to espionage and action thrillers, you could try the sexy, BDSM-lite office rom-com Love and Leashes, which is also on Netflix. Read all about it here.