Private Eye -- Film Review

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Bottom Line: Lushly rendered period production design steals the scene from a regular crime plot.

Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

BUCHEON, South Korea -- Seductive ambience and dapper style hold sway in "Private Eye," a lurid mystery that unearths serial murder, drug racketeering and sexual corruption in turn-of-the-19th-century Korea. Newcomer Park Dae-min shows promise as a director, spinning a rich, if sinuous yarn from his distended screenplay. Yet, his true calling maybe as art director, evident in the visual sophistication of his exquisitely costumed and ornately decorated production.

For entertainment value, "Private Eye" surpasses similar Korean films set in the Japanese colonial era with a patriotic theme, like "Once Upon a Time in Corea" or "Modern Boy." Standard genre elements, plus grisly, noirish scenes make it more commercially viable for Asian theaters and western ancillary.

Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jang-min) is what one would call a "bedroom dick" in a '50s noir film. The deadbeat gumshoe only takes adultery cases, so he refuses to dirty his hands when trainee-surgeon Gwang-soo (Ryu Deok-hwan) begs him to clear him of murder. Gwang-soo has discovered the body of Min Soo-hyun, the Interior Minister's son, just days after Min was declared missing from his blood-smeared room. He must find the killer before the police, eager for a fall-guy, makes him prime suspect.

Meanwhile, a similarly sensational murder is committed. Tempted by the reward and aided by female scientist Soon-duk's (Uhm Ji-won) handy inventions, Hong's sleuthing instincts lead him to an opium den, a circus and stately homes where he digs up evidence of sexual misbehavior implicating eminent men in the colonial administration.

Scattering many clues and coincidences to weave a web of intrigue that brings imperialist politics, class inequality and even female emancipation into play, there is much breadth in the narrative but tension gets diffused along the way. Violence escalates and culminates in a bloodbath so overblown it weighs on the sparky, light-hearted tone of the early acts.

"Private Eye" works best when purely indulging in nostalgia. Even small props like billboards and art curios are replete with quaint period detail. The filtered lighting wraps everything in the tender glow of lanterns and gaslight.

In the first act, a Keatonesque chase set to a Mariarchi score gives a lively tour through recreations of Seoul's historic Jong-no district, showing off the film's elaborate set design. The circus scenes are the film's crowning visual feat. A butterfly magic show, a knife-throwing stunt and a trapeze act are gorgeously filmed to muster the phantom air of Degas' paintings.

Hwang Jang-min, with his characteristic swagger, is tailor-made to play the dandy who's a gallant gentleman at heart. He has hearty comic rapport with Ryu, whose nerdy, cowardly character foils Hong's flamboyant heroics. Hong's advances to Soon-duk are too furtive to ignite much chemistry between the two leads.

Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Ryu Deok-hwan, Uhm Ji-won, Oh Dal-su
Director-screenwriter: Park Dae-min
Producer: Sean Lee
Executive producer: Katherine Kim
Director of photography: Choi Chan-min
Production designer: Yang Hong-sam
Music: Hwang Sang-joon
Costume designer: Cho Sang Kyeong
Editor: Nam Na-young
Sales-production: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 108 minutes
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