masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

Private Eye 그림자살인 2009 review

private eyeWhat is it about Korean soundtracks that makes them instantly recognizable? Is the ever-present accordion? The dramatic yet light-footed rhythm of the intro (think dancing bears), the canned strings? The Master isn’t sure (which as you know doesn’t happen very often), but instantly recognizable they are (thank you Master Yoda). And what is it about Korean soundtracks that they need to have a song in Russian or in Spanish? This is a movie about a private detective in the colonial period, but the lead song of the Private Eye is called Mascara De Un Payaso… Master Lee is mystified.

But then, this is a mystery, so the Master is not displeased. Unlike the many critics who panned this gorgeously looking private eye flick set in the colonial period, the Master was entertained. The first feature film of director Pak Daemin 박대민, there is much wrong with it. ‘Get an editor’ is what the Master kept thinking. The story is not only convoluted and implausible, it is also MUCH TOO LONG! Just get those scissors and cut away like a maniac. The Master thinks that most Korean movies these days are just too darn long. Those poor editors must be emancipated, because no-o ne listens to them. That or they should all be replaced. And that’s not all. The characters are not original, but stitched together a la Frankenstein from pieces of global popular culture found lying around. Lead Hong Jinho (Hwang Cheongmin 황정민) is an amalgam of all kinds of famous detectives (resulting in a not completely balanced mixture of Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, just about every second-rate PI there ever was and who can’t punch his way out of a paper bag, but is pretty punch-resistant nonetheless), pairing up with medical student Jang Gwangsu (Ryu Deokhwan 류덕환) – can you say Watson? The female support role (Eom Jiweon 엄지원) is promising (beautiful young woman, independent-minded, old dilapidated church, welding torch: Master Lee is in love) , but fails to be developed (or else the editor decided to assert his rights at the wrong moment and cut all the scenes that made her character come alive). The sets look gorgeous but also slightly contrived in a manner that must have pleased Im Kwon-t’aek. The ethics of the story are debatable  and the director does certainly not bother to go out on a limb to procure the viewer’s sympathy. He simply demands it by emptying a bucket full of smelly sentimentalist crap over the unsuspecting viewer, forcing him to go along with the story. So far for the bad news.

privateeye2The good news is that this is pure, pulpy, unadulterated fun. The actors are enjoying themselves and could act their way to an Academy Award here (admittedly in the category Best Pulp Movie Actor/Actress). Pay attention in particular to O Dalsu (오달수) who despite having to play an impossible role as the shady police chief, manages to impress with his acting from beginning to end. Hwang as Sherlock in Seoul is having fun and the Master acknowledges that he has rarely seen a more convincing world-weary PI who against the odds and against his better judgment takes on a hopeless case in the course of which he will be beaten up, stabbed, shot at, chased and put in prison. Such is the life of a PI. Hwang’s walk, the way his face lits up when he unexpectedly bursts out laughing, his hunched shoulders and the almost physical tension and pent-up frustration that ooze from the screen deserve an Oscar on their own. His Watson is also having fun and as good pulp should, this movie makes you forgive all the blatant stealing going on from other movies. Colonial Seoul (or Keijo) is a good substitute for Victorian London and a thrilling rickshaw race replaces the obligatory horse carriage race in most Holmes-flicks. There are so many references here to pulp culture, this could (should?) be a novel by Kim Young-ha 김영하. And it goes without saying there are more cliches to be found in this movie than black belts in the clothing cabinet of the Master. But what fun. Witty dialogues, entertaining action scenes, great character chemistry, seductive cinematography… The story, you ask? It doesn’t really matter: it’s about serial killings, subterfuge, drugs and circus people. The Master doesn’t need much more than this.

Private Eye is the latest in a series of movies about the colonial period, but it does little to take it serious. It merely uses it as a splendorous backdrop to a typical PI story. It’s nothing like, say, critically acclaimed Epitaph, but, so asks the Master, did you see a PI kicking ass in a Seoul opium-den in Epitaph? No, he didn’t think so. So if you are an intellectually inclined movie critic, go ahead and gripe and watch the collected works of Hong Sang-su 홍상수 (“The horror! The horror!”) again. If not, be prepared to be entertained. The fun the actors are having is contagious and the Master spent a pleasurable 111 minutes in the theater. Yes, the movie could have been shorter, the story could have been better and this could have been a (more or less) sincere/meaningful/provocative/pathbreaking statement about the position of the emasculated Joseon intellectual in colonial Korea under Japanese rule. But then, so could almost every pulp movie. But the Master does not ask to be other than he is. He likes pulp and he likes Private Eye. The best thing is that there’s room for a prequel and sequel here. A hint is dropped somewhere towards the end of the movie (about as subtle as an elephant making love) that our Sherlock used to be a military officer, who in the process of rescuing a damsel in distress was severely wounded (and presumable kicked out off the military), screaming “PREQUEL!” With the same kind of subtlety, our two heroes in the end embark on an imperial mission to retrieve a letter sent by the emperor from The Hague in the Netherlands… The Master can’t wait to see those two wreaking havoc in the country of cheese, clogs, tall people (many of whom appear to do well in the K1 competition) and marijuana. This is masterly pulp: no matter how much is wrong with it, it just keeps entertaining you. Bring on the sequel!

PS If you are squeamish, you might want to skip the surgery and forensic examinations. The detail in this scenes is amazing and for a large number of people vomit-inducing. I mean, showing the individual blood vessels? What was the director thinking?

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