The Detective K Films

Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow (2011) – 7/10

I had initially thought that this may have been inspired by the hit Hong Kong film Detective Dee that came out in 2010 but it is actually based on a Korean novel by Kim Tak-hwan (though perhaps the success of Dee helped it get the green light). This period (1782 during the reign of King Jeong-jo in the Joseon era) detective film is quite entertaining with a spiffy mix of mystery, action, drama, religion and a fair amount of comedy. Just when you think it is settling into being a comedy with moments that reminded me of mid Stephen Chow, it turns on its heel into a serious dramatic conspiracy mystery film with a decent amount of violence and dead bodies. It all somehow works with an ending that is surprisingly touching.

Someone is looting the royal treasury and the King requests that his favorite detective investigate. Detective K (Kim Myung-min) early on shows his Sherlockian talents by saving a dog thief from the gallows by catching the real killer by simply using his observational powers. The killer is involved in the corruption of the missing funds, but before he is able to be questioned he is murdered in his jail cell with a needle into the base of his skull. A clue though leads Detective K to suspect that the trail goes to the region of Jeok-seong. The King gives him a cover by asking him to go there and investigate the suicide of a widow. The Dog Thief (Oh Dal-su ) decides to tag along and it breaks into a partial Buddy film.

Everything is connected and nobody is who they seem to be other than Detective K. A very sexy villainous woman (Han Ji-min) flaunts her cleavage like a bear trap in the open and there is a sect of underground Christians thrown into the plot. It gets a bit confusing at times as it moves along at the speed of a 100 yard dash with a series of chases, captures, jokes, escapes, rescues, more jokes and so on. It is a lot of fun. There have been two sequels to this film - one in 2015 and the other in 2018. I look forward to watching them.

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (2015) – 6/10

Four years after Detective K: The Virtuous Widow was released came this sequel. It very much follows the first film stylistically with the same tri-polar mix of comedy, action and melodrama. This time there is a slightly more emphasis on the goofy comedy which at times can be a bit jarring when one minute you are talking about the death of children as well as pedophilia and then suddenly a fart or a breast joke. It feels slower as well and takes too long before it hits all cylinders, but when it does it gets quite good and emotional. It is also has the same director, Kim Sook-yoon, as well as the same two protagonists. Basically, why mess with a winning formula.

It is also four years later in the story and this time Detective K at the direction of the King is investigating loads of counterfeit silver that is damaging the economy. He gets to the bottom of it very quickly but ends up in exile with his friend Seo-Pil (Oh Dai-su) on a small island. The interaction between these two is all comedy and insults with an underlying sense of loyalty to one another - Detective K is an aristocrat to Seo-Pil's lower class status. Onto their island swims an adorable little girl who is also a math genius and a peasant to plead with Detective K to look for her missing sister. He refuses to do it because 1. he is in exile and leaving the island could get him executed and 2. he expects that the sister was probably sold into slavery by the parents. A very common practice at the time.

Eventually, when this girl goes missing as well he leaves the island and finds himself in the middle of corruption, murder, kidnapping, assassins, sex trafficking with everyone trying to kill him and Seo-Pil and with them having to escape one time after another. There is also a lovely mysterious kimono clad femme fatale (Lee Yeon-hee) whose motives are hidden behind a Mona Lisa smile. Detective K is a regular Tom Edison - finding the tine to invent a lighter, hand grenades and a glider.

Production values are fine as they are in nearly every Korean film - especially ones produced by Showbox - but at times these production values all feel too generic - smooth as silk but almost too smooth. I gave the first film a 7 rating but lowered the rating a point for this one because it felt too similar to the first film and the pace slower for the first half. Still quite entertaining.

Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead (2018) – 7.5/10

This is the third and so far last film in the Detective K series. And I thought it was the best of the lot. The film goes off on a different track than the previous two films by introducing the supernatural into the plot. It may seem silly on one hand but it works surprisingly well as there is a significant layer of pathos laid over the story - in the way that Korean filmmakers do so well.

Director Kim Suk-yoon once again handles those duties - and from his filmography these three films are almost the only thing he has done other than TV. He is very adept at mixing different genres into a whole cloth that is quite enjoyable to watch with the comedy in this one cracking me up a number of times. An indicator of this for me is that in all three films I began them late at night with the intention of only getting started and finishing the following day and instead watching them all the way through. At my age that doesn't happen often!

Detective K (Kim Myung-min) as the best detective in Korea - as he boasts - is asked by a woman to investigate the peculiar death of a man who was burnt to death - and he agrees after it being confirmed that his room will have an inside bathroom! So off he goes with his usual cohort (Oh Dai-su). At the same time a dead but beautiful woman is brought back to life by pouring blood over her corpse. But this suddenly reanimated woman - Woi-young (Kim Ji-won) - has no memory of who she is - or what she is. She meets up with Detective K and the two of them work together to solve the mystery of the increasing number of men killed by fire and to find out her identity - and it leads to a tragic story going back thirty years. The final thirty minutes eschews comedy and gets really emotionally intense. That has been the formula of all three films - begin with comedy - move to the mystery - throw in a few action scenes - and finally whack you at the end with pure melodrama. It worked for me.