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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Detective K": As good as the numbers?

2011/06/11 | 1621 views | Permalink

Kim Seok-yoon's "Detective K" is currently the highest grossing Korean film of the year with 4,795,460 admissions nationwide. Release back in January, this box office smash hit knits modern-day comedy and mystery over the backdrop of 18th century Korea. Impressively, the film even broke into the international top ten during its run at Korean theatres. Now that the dust has settled is "Detective K" as good as the numbers suggest?

Kim Myung-min plays a king-appointed detective tasked with unravelling the truth behind a series of murders that lead him to discover a greater corruption conspiracy involving high-ranking officials. An early blunder sees him being wrongfully arrested and is subsequently "punished" by the king with the new mission of finding a suitable candidate for the King's "Virtuous Widow" title to be bestowed upon. His mission takes him to Jeok-seong where he secretively continues his initial investigation with the help of his seemingly dim-witted follower, and favoured Park Chan-wook actor, Oh Dal-soo.

The two are initially not welcomed in the town and as they follow the clues they find themselves continually battling to survive in order to expose the truth. Our agile minded hero soon discovers that his murder mystery is some how linked to his quest to find the King's virtuous widow. In particular, his suspicions are raised over the beautiful Han Gaek-joo (Han Ji-min) who is an acting government minister while the real minister remains strangely absent. With the help of his dog loving sidekick, K manages to solve the mystery but not without letting a few big deceptions pass right under his nose. 

"Detective K" contains a number of social/religious issues concerning not only the depicted time period but contemporary issues as well. In the film, the Confucian ruling class were victimizing anyone associated with the Christian movement. Our heroes also place great weight on the writings of the famous Chinese philosopher general Sun Tzu; but overall the film superficially handles its religious themes and a fluid reading of the film in this regard is rendered moot by its imbalanced representation and contradictions. I felt like the films ambiguity in this area expressed the need to "show" religious opposition rather than solidify any ideological positioning that could be considered flammable in the public's mind.

The film in its entirety is a pastiche of not only social/political orientations, but also a clear modernizing of the Joseon dynasty as Kim Seok-yoon shows us 18th Century Korean with modern spectacles. From fluid and dynamic action scenes with fast tracking shots and zooms to provocative hanboks (tradition Korean dress) that are a far cry from Korea's conservative roots. Evening the settings seem a little too glossed over, especially the lavish interior of Han Gaek-joo's estate, and some of the gadgets K uses seemed out of place and unnecessary. Again, the criticism I draw with the film is one of balance. Some might consider the film to be "fresh" in this regard, and although the level of cosmetic surgery was eye catching, I couldn't help but notice I was watching an overly refurbished period piece.

The story itself was soft and didn't manage to pull my favour in any of the genres that it's comprised of. There were a few laughs but not enough to outlast the trigger imagery; the mystery was as involving as a game of Clue; and the action scenes were as about exciting and original as buttered toast. Now I am willing to concede that some of the humour was lost in translation but that alone still would not have been enough for me to hold this film is high regard. The acting in the film was sound and I found the comical relationship between K and Oh Dal-soo's character to be the glue that held everything together but, similarly to "Blades of Blood", their relationship was just not a good enough distraction.

I might be sounding harsh here and maybe expectations for this film were too high, but "Detective K" failed to take a stance, find a balance, and leave a lasting impression. 

See what other people thought of "Detective K" and give it your own score on HanCinema's forum

-Christopher J. Wheeler

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