The two most entertaining films at this year’s Fantastic Fest both came out of Asian countries. (This is where I get accused of being biased towards Asian cinema due to my supposed fetish for the ladies of the region…) Neither film is among the best of the fest though, which is an important distinction. As pure pop entertainment both Japan’s K-20: The Fiend With 20 Faces and Korea’s Private Eye succeed at being fun and exciting flicks that engage you by way of action, humor, and an almost Hollywood-like presentation. But as elated as they make you feel during the film, both of them leave you with a hefty share of questions and confusions once the credits have rolled. (Check out Brian’s excellent K-20 review here.)
It’s 1910 Korea, and Kwang-su (Deok-hwan Ryu) is a young medical student in the Japanese-occupied capital of Seoul. Walking through the woods one night he comes across a dead body, and with the costs of school supplies being so high he decides to bring the corpse home to help with his studies. He soon discovers that the murdered man is the son of a prominent politician and that the police have begun a major investigation into his disappearance. Fearing he’ll end up being held responsible for the death, Kwang-su hires Jin-ho (Jung-min Hwang) to find the real killer. Jin-ho isn’t entirely interested at first as his only detective experience consists of finding lost goods and photographing cheating spouses, but he eventually takes on the case. The duo soon discover a second corpse, the killer soon finds them, and before you know it we’re off on a rollicking adventure filled with thrilling action scenes, comedy, a dash of romance, a traveling circus, early 20th century spy gadgets courtesy of a very cute inventor, and intrigue and conspiracy that leads higher than anyone would have imagined.
The first two-thirds of the film are almost flawless popcorn entertainment. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, the mystery evolves organically, and the movie just looks incredibly slick. But the third act… it may just be me, but the third act manages something incredible (and not in a good way). It somehow manages to be both incredibly convoluted and out of left field and too easily wrapped up and explained at the same time. It’s both terribly complicated and ridiculously simple. It almost made me doubt the attention I’d been paying to the film until that point, but I’ve since confirmed it with some other audience members. The discoveries and revelations before this third act flustercuck came about naturally through a combination of minor detective work and right place/right time good fortune, but these darker events come to light purely because the script says they have to. And make no mistake, the mystery evolves into something very dark indeed.
Even with that third-act fiasco though writer/director Dae-min Park has crafted a fantastic and entertaining debut film. It’s an immersive period piece that never hits you over the head with the details, but if you look for the little touches they’re there. From the wardrobe to the old-school gadgetry to the beautiful wide shots of 1910 Seoul, this is a beautiful movie. One of the many highlights is a foot chase through a market that enthralls on it’s own merits while simultaneously invoking positive memories of the Bourne films as well as The Good The Bad The Weird. The sensation of the latter’s epic train robbery scene is especially strong thanks to a combination of stellar action, sharp visuals, and a musical score that moves you and makes you feel like part of the chase. It’s fantastic stuff all around.
As beautiful and fun as the film is overall, it’s the character of Jin-ho (and to a lesser degree his chemistry with Kwang-su) that will keep you engaged to the end. He starts as a cynic whose sole interest is financing his way to America where he imagines an endless supply of infidelity cases, but throughout this adventure he finds there are more important things worth caring about. He pairs nicely with Kwang-su, but the med student isn’t fleshed out as well as he could have been. That said, they do work well with one as the deductive thinker capable of action when necessary and the other the intelligent scientist filled with useful knowledge. Even more of a tease is his relationship with the aristocratic inventor played by Ji-won Uhm. There’s something between them but we never get more than a hint of what was or what could be. Luckily Hwang gives a strong enough performance to keep you interested even with those gaps.
So Private Eye is far from being a great film, but it’s still an immensely entertaining one. If you have the festival opportunity to catch it on the big screen I highly recommend you do so, but if not the movie is already available on import DVD. This isn’t really a spoiler as it’s been discussed extensively in previews and interviews, but the duo of Jin-ho and Kwang-su will most likely be returning for another adventure. This is excellent news for fans of the increasingly rare detective genre and kick-ass entertainment.
The Upside: Consistently entertaining, suspenseful, thrilling action scenes, funny, rousing score, introduces two strong characters we want to see again
The Downside: Third act manages to be both convoluted and resolved too easily, several unanswered questions and plot threads
On The Side: This would make a fantastic double-bill with the Don Knotts/Tim Conway classic, The Private Eyes. Those messenger pigeon scenes never fail to crack me up.