The Scent or Gan-gi-nam (2012)
The first question I need to consider is whether a film should be completely understandable to be considered a success. Sitting in the cinema, you see moving images which, together with the dialogue, are intended to tell a story. By watching and listening, you convert the incoming signals into a narrative and test it for credibility. Do people really act like this? Is such a thing actually possible? At the end of the film, you should have enough information to be able to explain what you’ve seen and heard. So-and-so did this because. . . I’ve seen people do this! I start in this way because, I walked out of the cinema in a mental fog after watching The Scent or Gan-gi-nam (2012). Fortunately, exchanging opinions with a bottle of wine to hand and some good food to stimulate the brain cells has allowed a better view to emerge, but there remain unanswered questions.
So this is a good thing, right? I’m a passionate person who wants to understand the plot. If the film had been terrible or offensive, I would have no interest. So there’s enough that’s good and it fuels my frustration that I can’t pin down some of the key points. The director and screenwriter, Hyeong-Joon Kim, with the loyal support of a good cast, has done enough to light the fire of my curiosity. The team made me want to know and then denied me understanding. OK, so without spoilers, I’ll capture the problem.
This is a film about fidelity. When a couple marry, they are exchanging mutual promises not to cheat so long as the marriage persists. For the record, the Korean legislature produced a law in 1953 to protect women. Not to put too fine a point on it, Korea was and remains a very patriarchal country. If women found their husbands had been unfaithful, they had no remedy. If the women were unfaithful, they could be thrown out of the home and left penniless. The law therefore criminalised adultery (defined as sexual intercourse) and allowed the courts the option of sending the guilty married party to jail. This means the law, which has been upheld as valid four times by the Constitutional Court, can be used purely for blackmail or revenge.
So, what’s the set up? Our detective hero, Kang Seon-woo (Hee-soon Park) has been suspended from the police force, accused of adultery with the Chief Police Officer’s wife. This is embarrassing to the detective’s wife, Hye-Young (Cha Soo-Yeon) who’s also a senior police officer. She’s been trying to persuade him to sign divorce papers ever since, but he’s consistently denied the accusation of adultery. During this two-year hiatus, he and a delightfully eccentric sidekick Gi-poong (Kwang Soo Lee) have been running a private investigation service, specifically aimed at catching adulterers in flagrante delicto. Their firm’s logo is the soles of four feet in an appropriate position and Gi-poong collects a free cigarette lighter from all the hotels where they’ve trapped an adulterer. A new client appears in their office which shows business is booming. She produces valid identification as Kim Soo-jin and commissions the detective to follow her husband. Pausing at this point, I can’t explain what motivates this woman to act as she does. I understand why the others conspire together, but this woman’s behaviour is incomprehensible given what we later learn about her role (which includes the use of a particularly exotic perfume and so explains the title of the film). Since this woman’s participation is the necessary trigger to all that follows, the failure of Hyeong-Joon Kim to explain how she was persuaded is particularly annoying.
The dynamic for the film is then supplied by what happens in the automated hotel to which the detective follows the “straying husband”. Suffice it to say that the detective wakes up in bed next to the dead body of his client, Kim Soo-Jin. Alerted by noises from the room next door, he enters to find another body (yes, it’s the “straying husband”) and next to that body is a woman who proves to be his wife (yes, she’s also called Kim Soo-Jin (Si-hyeon Park) and, yes, she uses the same perfume). Since our hero is due to report back to the police for duty, this is all somewhat embarrassing, so he calls Gi-poong. Together, the three dispose of the bodies and clean the rooms. The detective begins the process of schooling the actual wife of the dead husband — both women really are called Kim Soo-Jin — what to say. Everything looks as though it’s under control until an anonymous telephone call tells the police where to dig up the bodies. Now our hero has to find the real killer(s) and work out why he was involved.
In an otherwise relatively incompetent police team, Detective Seo (Jeong-tae Kim) leads the chase to identify the killer, and, quite quickly, evidence emerges threatening the exposure of our hero. It’s not explained why there are no business registrations for the private investigation office, no name on the lease, no local or state tax returns, and so on. The police apparently have no way of identifying who runs any business in Korea nor, when they find it, can they take fingerprints or other forensic evidence from the office to identify our hero as the investigator. Even more remarkable, no-one has any curiosity about how our hero has earned his living for the two years of his suspension. Yet evidence does emerge from a different source which leads to a particularly silly chase on the underground train service. These are distractions from the more interesting study of the hero’s dilemmas. At heart, he’s a moral man and it offends him that he’s innocent of the murders, but must hide his involvement. Taking a realistic view, he doubts his fellow officers will believe his explanation. Worse, he also finds himself physically attracted to the dead man’s wife — still called Kim Soo-Jin and using the same perfume. There are some fairly graphic scenes where they interact and so justify this film’s top adult rating for public viewing. So he could be tempted to abandon his wife, but what if the surviving Kim Soo-Jin has entrapped him? Nothing about the developing events “smells” right except he can’t begin to explain why she would have picked him for involvement nor how she could have engineered the two deaths. All he knows for sure is that her dead husband was a billionaire and owned a casino in Singapore. With his death, she’s now a very wealthy woman.
At the end of the film, there’s some explanation and I think I understand why a video of the murders was made, although I’m surprised that person had the technical expertise to place the cameras and make the recordings. Moving on, even though it’s wholly incredible, I understand why film-makers allow heroes to avoid ending up in jail. Audiences might be disenchanted if their dream factory killed off the stars or left them behind bars, in this case for so obviously obstructing justice by burying the bodies and destroying all the forensic evidence at the crime scenes. Hee-soon Park struts his stuff well yet, when the situation gets threatening, he also does fear and vulnerability. This is an excellent performance. Si-hyeon Park also does well as the male victim’s wife with secrets to hide and, in a very real way, there’s on-screen chemistry between the lead actors. There are pleasing moments of humour which balances out the tone of the film. At its heart, The Scent or Gan-gi-nam (2012) is a double murder mystery with some erotic content and a willingness to find some of the situations amusing (not the sex scenes, of course). It’s worth seeing (not just for the sex scenes, of course) and, if you do understand it all, I would be grateful for an explanation of the issues I’ve flagged here. To avoid spoilers, I can say no more.