In terms of originality and quality, Northeast of Seoul is a bust. The narrative is muddy, the thrills are trite, and the way Hollywood stars interact with foreign culture is about as authentic as an episode of The Love Boat. There’s also something innately comical about presenting corpulent ’60s star Victor Buono as a man of action. Having said all that, Northeast of Seoul is enjoyable if you’re receptive to its tacky pleasures, such as Buono creeping through a mansion like a ninja or running through forests like he’s James Bond on a secret mission. Nothing about Northeast of Seoul bears the slightest resemblance to human reality, so while the picture isn’t quite camp, it’s thoroughly silly.
Set in Korea, the movie concerns the search for a priceless ancient sword. Some parties want it for purposes of historical preservation, others want it because of its value on the black market, and still others want it because it’s purported to imbue its possessor with magical powers. Flanaghan (John Ireland) is a down-on-his-luck American working as a tour guide, since he knows Seoul as well as most natives. At the beginning of the picture, he attends a funeral and reconnects with Portman (Buono), an American art dealer based in Seoul, and Katherine (Anita Ekberg), an international woman of mystery. Long ago, they were partners with the man who just died, so when they get a tip that someone has found the long-missing Kuguro Sword, they team up again to find the artifact.
Borrowing style and themes from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and its myriad imitators, Northeast of Seoul portrays a tenuous alliance among untrustworthy people, with each scene introducing a new betrayal. This results in a storyline that’s always eventful but rarely clear—the filmmakers seem to believe that as long as lots of things are happening and people regularly jab each other with pithy dialogue, explanations are unnecessary. Ireland does a fair job channeling Humphrey Bogart-style cynicism, and Buono, as always, injects his villainous characterization with playful humor. Ekberg contributes the least of the three marquee names, but her presence is amusingly incongruous. Also of interest is extensive location photography throughout Seoul and the surrounding areas, as well as the use of classical Korean instruments on the soundtrack.
Northeast of Seoul: FUNKY