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Private Eye or Gongjung Gokyesa or 공중곡예사 / 그림자 살인 (2009)

Private Eye

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.

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

Ryu Deok-Hwan and Hwang Jung-Min look at where the body was found

 

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.

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

Yoon Je-Moon emerges from the shadows

 

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.

 

Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011)

February 5, 2013 2 comments

Moby Dick

Moby Dick or 모비딕 (2011) is a rather curious film out of Korea that, under the general genre heading of a thriller, actually turns out to be a film about the South Korean political machinations against the North. For a moment, let’s travel back in time to 1984 when paranoia about the North/South relationship was a more real electoral issue. Before 1998, the general stance was confrontation. There was to be no rapprochement with the North and, in the event there was provocation, the South would make an armed response. The intention was to signal the South wanted to maintain the status quo, fearing the North’s hostility if it believed the South wished to absorb the North into a united Korea. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung was elected and, under the so-called Sunshine Policy, separated the politics and the economics. Business co-operation was encouraged and tourism allowed. The Policy was finally abandoned as a failure in 2010.

 

This made the question of the relationship with the North a major issue in the elections throughout the 1980s and up to 1998 when the policy changed. This film assumes there was a conspiracy to incite the government into maintaining a hardline stance. We begin with what’s reported as a terrorist bombing in the South on the Balam Bridge approaching a major entertainment area and theme park just outside Seoul. The authorities are on the scene surprisingly quickly and, with equal speed, begin suggesting that three undercover operatives from the North were attempting to drive a car bomb into the theme park when it went off prematurely.

Kim Sang-Ho , Hwang Jung-Min, Kim Min-Hee and a photographer

Kim Sang-Ho , Hwang Jung-Min, Kim Min-Hee and a photographer

 

The reason for the title of the film is that, like Captain Ahab in the original novel by Herman Melville, the primary newspaper reporters are obsessed with finding out the truth behind every story they investigate. We start with Lee Bang-Woo (Hwang Jung-Min) who thinks he has a scoop on the Bridge story but finds he’s been beaten to filing it with the editor by a newly recruited reporter, Son Jin-Ki (Kim Sang-Ho). The reason for the newbie’s success is that he has a highly placed source who feeds him “reliable” information. When Lee Bang-Woo is approached by an old school friend, Yoon-Hyuk (Jin Goo), he realises he’s been handed a cache of potentially vital information by a whistleblower. To make sense of it, he overcomes his jealousy of Son Jin-Ki and pulls in Sung Hyo-Kwan (Kim Min-Hee). The information is both printed and in the form of floppy disks. Unfortunately, they don’t have the four character password for the disks. To complicate the investigation, Yoon-Hyuk refuses to say who he was working for. They check the military register and he’s not still a member of the army nor is he listed as a deserter. Yet he seems to have been acting as some kind of spy on South Korean territory. Not convinced of his reliability, the three reporters decide to investigate on their own. Except it rapidly becomes apparent that they are under surveillance. The original disks are stolen and they are threatened.

Jin Goo looking inconspicuous

Jin Goo looking inconspicuous

 

In the meantime, we’re allowed glimpses of secret meetings and an undercover squad that works out of the back rooms of a club. In parallel, Lee Bang-Woo dreams of being underwater but aware of a vast whale swimming close by him. He’s too close to see anything other than immediate details. Without perspective, there’s no way he can estimate its size nor what it might be capable of. Although the metaphor is somewhat heavy-handed, the direction and script from Park In-Je maintains reasonable intelligence and a good pace. It succeeds because unlike Hollywood efforts like the rather pathetic Enemy of the State (1998), there’s no attempt to embellish a simple story with science fictional surveillance technology nor engage in loud and interminable car chases. This has moments of stress and tension but, overall, it retains a great sense of realism. Allowing for one escape to be fortuitous, you feel it could all have happened. Except I’m in two minds about the ending. The response of the airline to the report of a terrorist threat is to allow the plane to fly. There’s no suggestion the aircraft was searched. Apart from that, the plot seems to play fair with the audience and holds attention.

 

So putting all this together, we have a shadowy group of businessmen and selected government officials determined to force confrontation with the North. The plot is both to fake espionage and engage in terrorist outrages in the South to implicate the North. Naturally, the group is somewhat upset when the reporters begin to investigate. Apart from the ending, everyone acts with reasonable integrity. The conspirators do not wish to kill indiscriminately. It’s the sacrifice of the few for the greater good. It’s credible they would hesitate to kill the three journalists. This makes Moby Dick or 모비딕 a reasonably enjoyable if somewhat low-key film.

 

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