By Lee Hyo-won
Equipped with an eagle eye and undyingly loyal sidekick, he's something of a Sherlock Holmes storming through 18th-century Korea. But Kim Myung-min's "Detective K" in the namesake film is often mistaken for a quack - even his mustache serves not so much for stroking gracefully while perusing keen insights, but rather to highlight his offhanded quirks (and perhaps a comical resemblance to Salvator Dali).
Though based on a mystery novel, "Secrets of Yeolnyeomun", the film offers a new script and, moreover, relies on the talent of its cast members: Kim ditches his emotionally-trying roles of a dying patient or torn maestro conductor for a goofy detective, while Oh Dal-soo, who stole the spotlight in his supporting role in "The Servant", appears by his side, showing off his knack for unassuming wit and humor. To top it off, popular actress Han Ji-min casts off her demure, lady-like image to bare some cleavage as a sultry femme fatale.
The film is set during the reign of the Joseon Kingdom's (1392-1910) so-called Renaissance leader King Jeongjo. The monarch suspects that taxes are going into the pockets of corrupt officials and hires the dutiful Detective K (Kim) to investigate the situation.
High ranking officers implicated in the case are found dead one after another, and only our fast-talking K is capable of performing an autopsy using acupuncture needles and mysterious herbs to show that it's a homicidal, rather than natural, death.
Though capable in many ways, K is always getting himself into trouble; this time he is mistaken for the killer himself as he extracts a long iron needle from the deceased's head and ends up behind bars. There, he meets a canine-lover named Seo-pil (Oh) who helps him escape, but the two soon find themselves being chased by the police and setting off on a trail of chaos.
Seo-pil tags along with K on his journey to Jeokseong - on probation for setting buildings on fire and the like - which is actually an undercover mission to continue the work commissioned by the king. Detective K discovers that Jeokseong is run by a powerful merchant Han (Han), who employs all the local slaves to work on a lucrative herb plantation.
He learns that a young visionary widow was actually the one who created the plantation, before her untimely suicide. K begins to suspect that Han may be directly related to not only the widow's suicide but also the swindled tax money, but will he be tempted by Han's seductive allure?
Though its strengths lie in its cast of colorful characters like the Hwang Jung-min franchise, "K" opts to find ticklish humor in introducing deliberate anachronisms that makes works like "Forbidden Quest" seem all too proper (even Sophia Coppola's sneaking in a pair of blue Converses into Marie Antoinette's shoe collection seem trivial).
But like "Private Eye", the film inevitably weaves the political dramas of the period into the story, including bloody persecution of Catholicism and other new ideologies and trends. Yet such serious themes are introduced in a rather haphazard manner, and only seem to weigh down the comedy.
The film bursts with laughter and invites viewers to solve a puzzle in a way that is light, enjoyable and far from mind-boggling, but it fails to tie the disjointed episodes into one seamless narrative.
In theaters Jan. 27. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex. Three out of four stars.
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