Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009)
Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009) is set in 1910. Korea was already occupied by the Japanese who proceeded formally to annex the country, appointing a Japanese Governor-General and deposing the Emperor. Japanese nominees also took over all the major authority roles and high status positions. This ranged from the military and police to the professions including medicine, the law, and so on. In practical terms, Korea became a protectorate under the de facto rule of the police. We start off the film with a medical student Kwang-Su (Ryu Deok-Hwan) searching the woods around Seoul for the bodies of dead animals. He’s training to be a surgeon but there are few opportunities to work directly on human bodies, whether alive or dead. It’s therefore quite a wonderful surprise when he finds the naked body of a young man. Without thinking too carefully about the implications, he treats this as his chance to get in some serious practice. Having a small hand-pushed cart with him, he has no problem in returning to the city with his find. The following morning sees him completing the first phase of organ removal.
It’s only at this point he comes to understand the seriousness of his situation. The body he’s been working on is the missing son of the newly appointed Interior Minister. Not unnaturally he fears to report his find to the authorities who might consider him a convenient scapegoat for the killing. Instead he focuses on the reward posted for finding him alive or finding his killer. By chance, he sees a flier advertising the services of Hong Jin-Ho (Hwang Jung-Min). He used to be a guard in the Royal Court but now earns crusts by tracking down unfaithful wives. Thinking they stand a good chance of identifying the murderer because they have the body and know where it was dumped, they team up to investigate. Because our detective is slightly more into thinking than action, he relies on Park Soon-deok (Uhm Ji-Won) as his science advisor. She’s a royal relative more interested in science than is good for her in these difficult social and political times. She dreams of escaping to America where she believes life will be more free.
As is always required, this is a film of two halves. The first part is relatively light-hearted as our new partnership of detective and sidekick doctor set out to solve the case. There are meetings with a number of key officials who will feature as the case develops and a great chase through Seoul as our heroes find themselves followed and try to catch the man responsible. At the end of the first half, we reach the point where, after tracking down the dealer who was selling morphine to the deceased, they are pointed to the circus which has set up its tents just outside the city. This leads to a meeting with Uk-kwan (Yoon Je-Moon), the circus master who, amongst other things, has a set of knives exactly like the one used to kill our victim. The second half of the film is altogether darker as a second murder and eavesdropping by Park Soon-deok suggests what may be going on. The problem, as always, is not only finding convincing evidence but also deciding how best to act with the Japanese now formally in charge of policing. The first signs are not good as the police move to frame a Korean farmer for the murders. They even go so far as to fake the body of the first victim, hiding the features by using lye. When our dynamic duo produce a photograph of the actual body (yes, our body snatcher has retained the body for part-time study purposes), the Commissioner agrees to give them two days to resolve the case. If they fail, he will execute the farmer (and find a reason to jail the duo for actually having the body).
As a story, Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 is dark and powerful but, as happens quite often with Asian films, there’s a less than perfect structuring of the narrative. Consequently, one key element is not clearly developed and we’re left to fill in other gaps to make complete sense of what we see. This is a shame, showing the inexperience of director and screenwriter Park Dae-Min. With just a little more care and some explanations at key points, this could have been a great film.