Jae-in may pass for a high school student on the surface, but step over the line and she'll soon reveal that she has abilities no student ever had. That's because Jae-in is actually a highly trained undercover operative for the police. On a normal day she'll use her looks to lock up the fiends of the underworld, but this day is far from normal. Her new mission is so devious you'd hesitate to ask even the most experienced agent to take it on. Jae-in must go undercover... in a high school!
Despite screaming protests there is no other way, and no other agent that can handle the job. She will don a the little cute uniform, she will pack her bags, and she will get to class on time. Why? Well, here's why...
The brutal gangster boss Bae Doo-sang is looking for one of his previous partners Cha Young-Jae, who has gone renegade. Naturally the police is very interested in talking to Cha, especially before Bae gets his hands on him, and performs one of his crude "operations" on the poor guy (here's a hint: Knives will be involved. General anaesthesia will not). Anyway, while Cha is in hiding, his teenage daughter Seung-hee is living a normal life. She has her own apartment, and she goes to school every day. And this is where Jae-in fits in. She must go undercover as a new student in Seung-hee's class. She must befriend the girl, and get her to reveal where her father in located.
However, going undercover in a high school is not the peachy assignment you might think. First of all, Jae-in is not exactly a poster girl for the well-adjusted hardworking school kids of Korea. She hates school, and the police is forced to fake her school records to even get her admitted. Second, Jae-in refuses to take any crap. Her first class is barely over before she manage to offend a girl, who is under the protection of the local gang of girls. When they show up Jae-in is naturally forced to kick their asses, which lands her in trouble with the school and.... well, you get the picture.
When Jae-in should be spending time with Seung-hee, she's instead forced to deal with the aftermath of the fights, which means taking down other potential troublemakers, trying the get the hell away from the girl she offended - who now seeks Jae-in's protection - and meeting with the teachers to explain her behaviour. And as if that wasn't enough Seung-hee proves to be very secluded girl, who is almost impossible to approach. This young agent is facing her toughest assignment yet. But it gets worse.
Here's the thing: There's this guy in her class, right? He's so dreamy, and he's like SO into her, and if she could just get a liiiiiiittle time off, she might just be able to get her hands on him, and then they could be married and have kids and... Distractions? What? There are no distractions here!
As you can see, Jae-in will need more than algebra to get through this one.
Taking the spy-genre and combining it with a high school setting is not a new idea. "Agent Cody Banks" did so very successfully, but there has been others as well. Even the way "She's on Duty" presents its story, merging an essentially serious dramatic plot with a comedy approach, has been done before. Most notably in a film like "My Wife is a Gangster". Indeed, the final act, or rather the shift in tone that occurs, is very much in the vein of "My Wife is a Gangster". Suddenly everything is serious, people die for real. They are mutilated and beaten to a bloody pulp, and our heroine is faced with a life threatening situation. Up to that point everything has been fun and games, but now things are suddenly very real.
The Koreans seem to be the only ones capable of making a film that goes through this extreme kind of transition. I like the style, even when it doesn't work 100 percent, it's still entertaining to watch. You can never be sure when the movie will turn to the dark side, and that keeps things interesting.
The concept of "She's on Duty" is essentially an adaptation of the "fish out of the water" idea. Our heroine, an expert in her own field, must apply her talents to a new situation. The whole point is, of course, that she discovers that the two fields are very much alike. High school, it turns out, isn't all that different from the spy-game.
The film has a lot of fun with clash between these two worlds, and derives its best moments from this. Like, for example, when Jae-in is trying to cheat her way though an exam with the help of an earpiece, connected to a team of advisors in a van outside of the school. A plan that might have worked, if the agent in charge of math problems hadn't frozen up halfway though the test.
"She's on Duty" looks the part. It has no trouble portraying the cool settings of the spy-portion of the story, and it slips into the comfortable setting of the plush teenage life equally effortlessly.
Too bad the characters come up short.
Kim Seon-ah doesn't quite cut it as Jae-in. She looks awkward as an undercover agent (at least in the beginning), her fighting is unconvincing, and she's too much of a screaming teenager. Only after her stint at the school, when the story reaches the climax, and the film takes the fight into the streets, only then does her character come into full bloom. But it's too little too late. I would have liked it if she had been more straight-faced as an agent. That way the contrast to her behaviour in the school would have been more prominent, and that would have enhanced the comedy considerably.
Then there's the bad guy. He's as perfunctory as they come. The script sticks him with cool idiosyncrasies, like jamming a knife into the gut of his enemies, or marvelling at his own gangster look, which includes that this-is-so-90's white hairdo. But he's just not menacing enough. His big plan is to get his hands on Seung-hee's father and kill him. That's it. No plot to take over all dope dealings in the Asian region, and no desire to dominate the world. And that's just plain weak.
Of all the characters, only Seung-hee makes it through in one piece. She has a tender quiet way about her that makes her immediately likeable. Nam Sang-mi plays the character well, and keeps us guessing as to what this girl is really about. As any guy can testify to, when we can't figure out a woman, she immediately becomes twice as interesting. Seung-hee's emotional baggage comes courtesy of her father, who left her alone, because his gangster connections forced him to go into hiding. She loves him, she just doesn't like him very much, and that's an interesting dilemma for any character.
"She's on Duty" is more even than the recent "Marrying High School Girl", though not as funny as "Slave Love" or "He Was Cool". But that's less of a problem. More troublesome is the fact that the film has nothing new to offer. Everything it does, has been done before, and better. It's a little less fun than it should be, it's a little less crazy, the fights are not quite as cool as they should be, and though Kim Seon-ah is cute, she's no Ha Ji-won. It's as if everything about this film is just a tad below par.
In a world where a film like "My Wife is a Gangster" leads the class, there's no room for underachievers with a low grade point average. Despite all its good intentions "She's on Duty" just doesn't make the cut.