South Korea is kicking ass at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, with Bong Joon-Ho’s marvelous Madeo, the funny, sweet and hugely enjoyable Castaway on the Moon and the rollicking Private Eye, a remarkably assured debut from Park Dae-Min. It’s a detective story, set in early twentieth century Seoul, and I won’t spoil too much about the plot except to say that it opens in good atmospheric style with the removal of a body from a wooded clearing.
Hwang Jeong-Min plays Hong Jin-Ho, a gutter PI who chases errant wives and is recklessly fond of disguises that usually get found out. In an entirely organic chain of events he reluctantly teams with a clever young medical student (Ryu Deok-Hwan) to track down the killer of a minister’s son. The doc proves pretty useful, as does Hong’s friend, a high-class lady inventor (Uhm Ji-Won) who maintains a secret mechanical lair where it acts as both crime a lab and a Q, providing Hong with intricate optical devices beautifully fashioned from wood and brass.
There’s bumbling police, a brief but terrific old-school newspaper editor, and a marvelous circus (Really, what movie wouldn’t benefit from the addition of a circus? Citizen Kane‘s one failing.) as well as plenty of action, from a rollicking punch-up in an opium den to the tense final showdown in the dark. It can get a bit silly, but in an endearing old-fashioned way – after dispatching a load of goons Hong sighs “not another one” and takes more beatings than Marlowe – but less forgivable is the nauseating effect applied to the camera that mars an extended and otherwise finely choreographed chase through terrific street sets.
Overall, performance, pacing, structure, music and production design are all exemplary. No detail is wasted, the release of information is judged perfectly to keep the audience half a step ahead of the twisty plot but rarely more. And just enough backstory is revealed about Hong and his lady friend at just the right time. Skillful, supremely good-humored and with an unusually fine balance of character with/through action. It is so purely enjoyable and winds up with such a shameless but stylish sequel set-up that one longs happily for more.