Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011)
Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011) is based on the mystery novel Yulnyumoonui Bimil (열녀문의 비밀) by Kim Tak-Hwan, and proves to be a highly entertaining Korean version of the newly emergent passion for relocating Sherlock Holmes into different environments and giving him more flaws than deductive reasoning powers. This follows in the faintly comic but adventure-based tradition now established by Guy Ritchie except, for a change, we’ve moved back in time. We’re at the end of the eighteenth century in Korea during the reign of King Jeongjo (Nam Sung-jin). The actual year is 1793 so we overlap the lifetime of Warrior Baek Dong Soo with the King’s succession, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal with the move of the capital at issue. This film focuses on a financial crisis. It seems the collection of taxes has been hijacked and, instead of vital funds flowing into the royal coffers, it’s disappearing into the hands of one or more high-placed nobles. Worse, every time anyone gets close to uncovering one of the links in the chain that diverts the money, the suspect dies from “natural” causes. Alarmed at this obvious conspiracy, King Jeongjo issues a secret order to Detective K (Kim Myung-Min). He’s to identify the mastermind(s) and bring him/them to justice.
Our first real sight of the man confirms him as a genuine talent. Unfortunately, it’s for falling flat on his face as he attempts a martial arts entry into an arrest situation. However, when he recovers his composure, i.e. is able to stand up, we’re given a quick flashback to establish his credentials as an investigator as he deconstructs a “suicide” scene to show why it’s actually a murder. Following this chain of reasoning, he identifies the local city governor as the killer and exonerates Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su), the dog thief the forces of law and order were chasing. When this governor is later found dead in jail, Detective K demonstrates his talent again by being the first on the scene and finding the long needle used to kill him. The prison guards naturally run into the jail and arrest him — he does have the murder weapon in his hands. This puts him in the same cell as the dog thief who demonstrates the more useful art of escape by digging a tunnel.
After a madcap chase, our escaping duo take refuge in a barn used to store both grain and milled flour. Seeing the chances for an explosion, Detective K sends his new Watson off in search of fire while he delays all the chasing soldiers inside the barn. As he fights, he creates ever more dust in the air. When Watson returns and throws in the glowing branch from a fire, the barn is demolished and our hero is saved although crisped round the edges. Our newly minted duo are about to follow a clue into the countryside when they are diverted into a meeting with the leader of the Noron party, Minister Lim (Lee Jae-Yong) who seeks to use his influence to ensure his daughter-in-law will be treated as having died as a virtuous widow. Shortly after our duo’s arrival in Jeokseong, an area famous for growing wolfbane, they encounter Han Kaek-Joo (Han Ji-Min) who seems to be responsible for all the trade in this region. Detective K now reveals himself as susceptible to a woman’s charms (which are prominently on display) and so begins the unravelling of the heart of the mystery.
One of the major themes running through the film is the relationship between the newly reintroduced Christianity and the long-established Confucianism, a battleground of faith that reveals the extent to which Confucian ideals were holding the nation’s development back. For all there was increasing prosperity thanks to the relocation of the capital and the introduction of the Sungkyunkwan as a seat of learning, the power of the nobility to hobble innovation remained strong. This is clear in the influence wielded by Minister Lim. It also made the politics of both Detective K and the Christians dangerous because, as a matter of conscience, they are attempting to improve the lot of the slaves out in the countryside. For the record, King Yeongjo outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice in 1758 and, despite it being formally reintroduced in 1785, there was significant persecution and martyrdom. For the local Confucians, one of the main problems was the Christian missionaries use of Hangul for translations of the Bible and religious texts. This helped spread the use of the script and undermined traditional scholarship based on the Chinese script — if you want to see the origins of the struggle over Hangul, watch Tree With Deep Roots. Interestingly, it turns out the now-deceased widow related to Minister Lim was a Christian who wanted to free the slaves on her husband’s estate. This would have given the Minister and his family a motive for murdering her.
Although the themes are essentially serious, the tone of the film remains light and, at times, close to farce. The only misstep is the use of CGI to create two giant dogs. This was unnecessary. The same effect could have been achieved with ordinary dogs given the fairly token nature of their roles. I was pleasantly surprised by one twist at the end. The rest is obvious from the outset and resolved by the usual deus ex machina appearance of the King at the critical moment. This is to be expected in a period film which wants to be broadly entertaining. Kim Myung-Min is excellent as Detective K showing a man who’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is, but blessed with a heart of gold on the inside. While Oh Dal-Su as Seo-Pil is more than he seems but equally accident-prone. The Sherlock/Watson chemistry between the leads is excellent, carrying the film. Summing up, Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil can’t be beaten as unpretentious fun.