Sunday, September 15, 2013

On Netflix streaming: PRIVATE EYE is Park Dae-min's Korean version of a Hardy Boys mystery

One of the pleasures of the new Korean cinema (South Korean, obviously) is how it takes genre after genre and gives each its own peculiar and eminently entertaining spin. When the film is also a "period" piece, as many of them are, the exotic element, at least for American audiences, is practically doubled. So it is with the film PRIVATE EYE (Geu-rim-ja sal-in), a surprisingly enjoyable combination of mystery, thriller, history lesson, circus film, romance, and a nasty look at corrupt power that gives the viewer an idea of what a Korean Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery might looks like -- gussied up, of course, with the usual Korean penchant for blood and aberrant sexual proclivities.

The plot takes off from the point at which a young medical student (Ryu Deok-Hwan, above) discovers a dead body (shown at bottom), takes it home to dissect, and too late discovers it once housed the son of one of the town's bigwig ministers. So he hires/cajoles a local down-on-his-luck detective (Hwang Jeon-min, below), who usually catches husbands and/or wives in the act of adultery, to help him find the murderer.

Their search leads all over the town and involves a pretty good street chase, a travelling circus, some very ugly abuses of power and more murders. What gives the film that Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew feel is the goofy comedic element that keeps rearing its funny head. While this would normally throw off the balance of an American or European film, if you're at all used to Korean cinema, you'll realize it's just part of the game.

The off-and-on, love you/hate you relationship between the student and the detective works nicely, rather like that of a romantic screwball comedy, but without the sexual quotient -- the latter being provided by a very smart young woman-friend of the detective, played by Uhm Ji-won, who is still carrying the torch for him (and he for her).

First-time director Park Dae-min gives Private Eye a super-colorful look (the circus element is inspired), a fast-paced feel and a lot shorter running time (only 108 minutes) than have most South Korean movies. And the period element -- the film takes place somewhere around 1910 to 1920, from what I could judge, when Korea was under the control of Japan -- makes the movie even more exotic, so that we get a little history, politics and chauvinism tossed into the mix.

I am not rating this film any great shakes, mind you, but it makes a fun watch. I do wish that its distributor CJ Entertainment could do something about the English subtitles, however. As the movie goes along these begin to be noticeably out of sync. Someone speaks, and a few seconds later, the subtitle appears. This makes it very difficult, at times, to figure who just who said what. Still, I'm glad I watched, as Private Eye, in high definition, is awash in gorgeous visuals and good performances.

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