By Michelle Kim and Daum Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - A trio of elite, but bumbling, North Korean spies has won the hearts of southern compatriots in a blockbuster South Korean film that views the tragedy of the divided peninsula through the unusual prism of comedy.
The record-breaking success of "Secretly Greatly" - which scored a million viewers in just 36 hours after its release early last month, a first for a domestic film, and will debut in the United States this month - testifies to the fascination the North holds even 60 years after the end of the Korean War.
In that conflict, North and South Korea and their allies fought each other to a standstill and never signed a formal peace declaration. The world's most heavily militarized border still separates the two and free travel is impossible.
"It is my wish that everyone, including our current leaders, watch this movie to see how the younger generation is affected by our tragic division," said director Jang Cheol-soo at the premiere of the movie, which was based on a hit internet comic.
Main character Won Ryu-hwan, a spy fluent in five languages who has 98.7 percent accuracy with a gun - echoing late North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il's reputed 11 holes in one at golf - is dispatched to the South, and told to disguise himself as a fool.
He later meets two comrades, one pretending to be a rock star despite poor guitar skills, and the other a naive high school student. Bored by ordinary life in the South they yearn for a grand mission that they hope will turn them into legends, in order to return to the Fatherland.
The issue of spies in the South is a serious one and has spawned a cottage industry of analysts and thinktanks poring over Pyongyang's every move. About 43 covert operatives have been rounded up in the last decade, says a source in the National Intelligence Service.
It has also been a popular topic for movies, such as "Shiri" in 1999 and "The Berlin File" in 2012, both of which were high-grossing, hot-topic films.
But "Secretly Greatly" differs by taking a lighter look at North-South relations as the three spies develop an unexpected fondness for their neighbors, sharing a laugh over a simmering chicken stew or riding swings in a playground.
"Although the film goes along with the standard North-South conflict plot, it plays that out with a cheerful touch," said film critic Kim Hyo-seon.
"The charming interactions between the villagers and the spies allow the audience to comfortably absorb the heavy topic."
The cartoonist who came up with "Covertness", the hit web cartoon on which the film is based, said a fleeting thought while eating lunch inspired his creation, whose 66 episodes got a combined 40 million hits.
"It suddenly occurred to me that at least one person in the restaurant could be a spy, quietly living among us," said Choi Jong-hun, who goes by the pen name "Hun".
"Of course the North and South are enemies and the division is a tragedy. But I think we are one people, and the story focuses on that love for neighbors and family."
"Secretly Greatly" opens later this month in theatres across North America and Asia, including in Singapore and Japan. It will also screen at several film festivals, among them the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.
(Reporting By Daum Kim and Michelle Kim; Editing by Elaine Lies and Clarence Fernandez)