Saturday, June 09, 2012

Private Eye: Wearing Hats and Solving Crimes in 1910 Korea

In 1910, the Korean Empire was a far cry from Burke and Hare’s 1820’s Edinburgh.  Nonetheless, when a medical student finds a corpse in the woods, he cannot resist the rare opportunity to dissect a human cadaver.  When his specimen turns out to be the well-heeled victim of a serial killer, Jang Kwang-soo turns to a professional to guide him out of the mess.  At least that is the idea in Park Dae-min’s Private Eye (trailer here), now available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Justice is no longer Hong Jin-ho’s business.  The ex-cop turned gumshoe now specializes in divorce cases.  He wants nothing to do with Jang’s case, but the prospective reward for information on the magistrate’s missing (and in fact dead) son along with his former colleagues’ incompetent handling of the case hook him in, despite his better judgment. 

When the body of a sleazy commissioner also turns up in the same manner as Jang’s cadaver, detective and client quickly realize they are onto something much larger.  Not exactly CSI specialists, the Seoul police are more concerned about cleaning up the crime scenes, lest they offend the victims’ powerful relatives.  This gives Hong an advantage, thanks to his secret ally, Park Soon-deok, a noble born lady scientist, who frustrated by the era’s gender norms finds an outlet by serving as both Hong’s Quincy and Q.  Yes, they share some ambiguous history, but that is the least of Eye’s concerns.

Given the conspicuous corruption of the authorities, it is not hard to figure who, in general, the bad guys are.  Still, Park and two credited co-writers keep many of the details of the lurid plot relatively murky, while throwing viewers a few twists worthy of the Victorian mysteries obviously inspiring the film.  However, sensitive viewers should be aware the conspiracy involves some disturbing death-of-innocence crimes.  (Just once, it would be nice to see the villainous pervs targeting middle-aged genre filmmakers.)

Appropriately roguish, but far from invulnerable, Hwang Jung-min makes an engaging hardboiled hero bordering on anti-hero.  Though he is occasionally a just a tad shticky, for the most part Ryu Deok-hwan’s Jang is a restrained, wide-eyed sidekick.  Unfortunately, Um Ji-won is not allotted nearly enough screen time as Lady Park, because she brings an intelligent and charismatic presence to easily the film’s most intriguing character—partly an early feminist role model and partly a virtuous Irene Adler figure.

While the Sherlock Holmes comparisons have been a little overdone (Hong has a straw hat to Holmes’ deerstalker, get it?), Eye ends on a rather clever Scandal in Bohemia homage that could easily function as a jumping off point for the sequel.  Despite the often dark themes, the fast-paced Private Eye is a rather entertaining period noir.  Recommended for fans of Korean cinema and the hardboiled crime movies, it is now available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.