Private Eye (2009)
Park Dae-min's debut film, Private Eye, carries on the recent tradition in South Korean film of liberally appropriating genre tactics and shaping them into unique versions of hackneyed themes. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is not meant to be. In a world were the economy of film is dominated by Hollywood, all but suffocating any notion of national cinema, I am thrilled that South Korea continues to take Hollywood to the mat year after year. However, most of the time this isn't happening with the titles and directors that may be most familiar to international audiences, but instead with films like the disaster movie Haeundae, the family comedy Scandal Makers, the God-awful monster movie D-War, and the entertaining Public Enemy franchise. Although Private Eye did not see the same success as some of these movies, it is a film cut from the same cloth with very populist intentions and domestic audiences in mind.
Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jeong-min) is and ex-military officer who now makes money exposing cheating wives and photographing the scandals along the way. Eventually his profession will be known as a private eye, but in the early 20th century, no such thing exists in Korea. Jin-ho is just a guy trying to earn enough money, by hook or by crook, to catch a boat to the US (where he hears there are more cheating wives.) Although he makes a rule not to investigate anything dangerous, Jin-ho agrees to look into a murder when a young medical student offers him a large reward. Jin-ho quickly gets pulled into the mystery that involves opium dens, underage girls, knife throwers and corrupt officials. One of those corrupt officials is Jin-ho's former colleague and less clever nemesis, Yeong-dal (played by Oh Dal-su, the pastry chef responsible for giving the 'Kind Hearted Guem-ja' a job in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, among other very memorable roles.) As the bodies start to pile up, the race is on for Yeong-dal to pacify politicians in the high profile murders and for Jin-ho to find the truth.
The action moves at a steady clip, but it unfortunately never gives the characters much consideration beyond generic labels: clever and stupid, naive and worldly, evil and pure. And the crackpot team of brilliant sleuth and earnest doctor is as well-worn as the crime novels in a used bookstore. But where Private Eye really shines is in its beautifully constructed early 20th century Korean era. It's an idealized hybrid of contemporary cool and awkward modernization in a Japanese occupied Korean peninsula. Traditional dress mixes with modern, as does the rapidly changing cultural conventions. Uhm Ji-won plays a woman who is an inventor secretly working beyond society's view creating things that help Jin-ho in his profession. She is like a very interesting version of Bond's Q. At one point in the film she is asked to do some eavesdropping with a group of society ladies. Their outing? A sophisticated round at the archery range with the women all wearing their gorgeous hanboks and carrying their bows like a fashion accessory. It's moments like these that are surprising in their picture perfect specificity. The ending is a wee bit overwrought, as if there was some sort of need to make the mystery more mysterious and titillating, but thankfully it is peppered with some genuine suspense so it doesn't fall flat before tying up all the loose ends. With an epilogue almost literally leads into a sequel, we surely have not seen the end of Jin-ho and his his sidekick. With a little bit of care (and luck), Private Eye could turn into a very interesting franchise of historical thrillers.