When one thinks of Korea, one doesn't necessarily think of endearing private detective films. But just such a film is exactly what writer / director Park Dae-min has created in Private Eye.
The film is set in occupied Korea in the early 20th century. Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jung-min) works as a private detective and sometimes reporter, finding out unfaithful wives and such like, all the while saving up the money he needs to take a steamship to America. The ship leaves in just a couple of weeks, and he's a bit short. This lack of funds is the only reason he agrees to help out young medical student Gwang-soo (Ryu Deok-hwan), and break his personal rule to never do anything dangerous. Gwang-soo had found a dead body in the woods, and decided to do some dissecting to help with his studies, and only later finds out that the body is that of the Interior Minister's missing son. Desperate to find the killer and clear his name, he offers to give the large cash reward to Hong. And thus the adventure begins.
The plot is a bit convoluted, but Dae-min does a decent job keeping all the threads distinct and the action clear. Soon enough, more people are killed, all important members of the government, and all killed in the same way. Hong and Gwang-soo do whatever is necessary to find the killer, including the infiltration of an opium den and Hong volunteering to partake in a knife throwing act at a travelling circus. Hong also consults Lady Park (Oh Dal-soo), an aristocratic scientist, with whom he seems to have some sort of past relationship, though it is only hinted at. Sometimes their adventures are played for laughs, as in the goofy opium den fight scene, and sometimes they are more serious, as when Gwang-soo struggles to save the life of a young girl who has attempted suicide. These changes in tone don't jar, however, with the humor providing rather a gentle relief to the sometimes sordid and dark mystery they are investigating.
The period is strongly evoked (at least, to someone with knowledge of early 20th century Korea, it seemed strongly evoked) and the characters are distinct and feel at home in their environment. Hong is almost the stereotypical noir private eye: an ex-cop, cynical about the world and authority, but he has a strict personal code that he inflexibly adheres to. But, unlike most noir heroes, he has well developed sense of humor, and the ability to laugh at circumstances even while he appreciates their flavor of tragedy. Similarly, Gwang-soo and Lady Park can almost fit into the molds of the na´ve young doctor and the distant former mistress, but end up being both more subtle and more real than those. Private Eye has suitably creepy villains, and an underlying back story that is both frightening and authentic. There are enough clues scattered along the way that the viewer can have fun guessing what the true motive for the murders might be, but not so many that it is obvious or easily figured out.
The film can probably be classed as an action / mystery, because there are numerous fight and chase scenes, but nothing over the top or too outlandish. But this is mostly a mystery film, and the central enigma, who is killing these important people and why, is intricate and compelling enough to keep the viewer truly interested throughout. The film takes off fairly early, with the setup taken care of and major characters introduced very early on, and is well paced throughout. It is by turns exciting, frightening, thrilling and funny, and has an ending that clearly indicates possible sequels. One can hope. Highly recommended.