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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.

 

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

We now come into the endgame in Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011). With So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and the other court ladies sent out of the palace to spread the word about reading, King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) and Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) set out to split Milbon. This has become possible as many of its members in senior political positions are disturbed by the murder of the Crown Prince. However Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) has worked out the point of hiding the release of the women into the countryside and sends out all his men to find them. Meanwhile Lee Shin-Juck (Ahn Seok-Hwan) as Right Minister finds his Milbon allegiance wavering. He’s looking to establish a new faction to protect the original aims of their secret society but marginalise Mr Big Root for killing the Prince. He makes a deal with the Chinese secret service to help him while, on the ground, Milbon begins to split into two. These leaves the King’s men running round the mountains looking for So-Yi.

So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung) and Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) distributing the letters

Within Milbon, a power struggle emerges for the soul of the organisation. The opposition to Mr Big Root is led by Sim Jong-Soo (Han Sang-Jin) who believes the leader has sacrificed the primary aim of the organisation through his obsession with preventing the release of the letters. It’s put to the leader he should step down. Meanwhile the King takes Lee Shin-Juck to one side and offers him amnesty if he will give up Mr Big Root, take over Milbon and enter into a debate about the structure of government. This will potentially give Milbon what it wants but, of course, Lee Shin-Juck is reluctant to trust the King. On the mountain, Mr Big Root now has So-Yi and two other ladies in his hands while Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) runs around looking for clues. He thinks Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) may lead him to Milbon’s secret base but his attempts to contact him fail. Things grow tense.

In the last two episodes, all the immediate plot lines are resolved. There’s some fighting. Not as much as you might expect and the fights we have are not showy but functional to get the job done. And this leads me to an interesting issue to discuss in these final paragraphs. Korean drama in general and sageuks in particular have unresolved issues. Straight history is boring. Indeed, when Korean television first got into historical dramas and did literal versions of the records preserved from past eras, the initial popular interest and excitement quickly evaporated. No matter how fascinating such images may be to scholars, television cannot sustain a purely academic ethos. It’s primarily there for entertainment (although this does not deny the possibility of educational themes in the subtext). It’s the modern bread and circuses to distract the masses.

King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu) steeling himself for the endgame

So here we have a drama about the King’s desire to lift the people from ignorance by giving them a phonetic rather than ideographic system of writing. So for those of us interested in semiotics and postmodernist debates about the function and power of the discourse, this is a classic period of history to examine. Here we have a feudal hierarchy with the King at the top, a corps of noble families, scholars to run the administration, a very small middle class of merchants, a massive class of peasants, and an underpinning of slaves. At this point, I need to mention a “new” suggestion from Gerald Crabtree, a geneticist at Stanford University in California, in two articles published in Trends in Genetics. He offers the opinion that early humans had to be intelligent to survive. Or if they were stupid and made mistakes, they would likely end up dead and not spread their genes. So if we apply this to early Korea, we have a potentially very intelligent group of survivors and the only thing holding them back is the inability to write down their thoughts. By giving them an easy-to-learn notation system, people can suddenly record their thoughts, pass on their experience, and preserve their innovations for future generations. Oral histories can only go so far, depending on the willingness of people to talk to each other. But once ideas are written down, they become more durable. Technology and knowledge can develop and consolidate their hold in society. Of course the written form of discourse is just as open to manipulation as the oral communication route. Those with power have always had control over the official publication process and have been able to use words to deceive the people. But, over time, the people learn to distinguish the real from the unreal. More importantly, they can develop their countercultural information printing facilities to parallel the official discourse. In the West, pamphleteering and broadsides distributed or posted on walls became a thorn in the side of many governments. Anyone can write on a wall in Korea.

The moment Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) realises he’s lost

So for the King to be developing this system is playing with social dynamite. As Milbon puts it, the letters could open the door to Hell, bringing anarchy and destruction. Or it can just begin the slow process of reversing the direction of flow in their society. When the King plans this, the lives of the peasants and slaves are essentially worthless. Centuries after the release, the lives of the Korean people have more equal value and there’s less exploitation. If the development of the language was revolutionary, it has taken a long time for the social wheel to turn. Which leads me to this final thought. Many characters in this drama sacrifice themselves for a cause for and against the language, but the King sails serenely on. Essentially people are disposable tools for getting things done. He can be fond of individuals (including his son), but everything has to be subordinated to achieving what he perceives as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He’s a walking embodiment of utilitarianism.

Finally, I think the way the series concludes is slightly too obviously didactic. This takes noting away from the central performances by Han Suk Kyu, Jang Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung. They are magnificent throughout albeit Shin Se Kyung doesn’t quite get the role I think she deserves given her importance to the language development program. But the script becomes a little preachy. Yes, the ideas are powerful but, for all the weepiness surrounding the heroic sacrifices made, things could have been neatly tied up without all the moralising. This does not change my view that this sageuk is outstanding and should be seen by as many as possible. But the slow shift in tone as we reached the ending did slightly take me down a notch at the end. Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) is somewhat sad.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes seventeen to twenty

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Well, as we come into episodes seventeen to twenty of Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011), the “big secret” is out as King Sejong (Han Suk Kyu), Kang Chae Yoon (Jang Hyuk) and Moo Hyool (Jo Jin Woong) end up in a Mexican stand-off with Mr Big Root (Yoon Je Moon) himself plus Yoon Pyung (Lee Soo-Hyuk) and Gae Pa-Yi (Kim Sung-Hyun) — that’s Mr Invincible to everyone since so far no-one has been able to compete with him in the martial arts stakes. Were it not for the presence of So-Yi (Shin Se Kyung), the epitome of common sense, there would have been major bloodshed and the series would probably have juddered to a halt. As it is, everyone took a step back to consider the situation.

Han Suk Kyu, Shin Se Kyung and Jang Hyuk take a quiet moment before the storm

So how did we get into this mess? It all started off so well with Ddol-Bok doing his undercover infiltration of Milbon while the King moved forward with his plan to get the letters released. Except it all came unstuck (as you would expect in this type of Korean drama). A Milbon agent finally found out where the Prince was hiding and this exposed Ddol-Bok’s lie. However, this spooks our terrorists and expecting a raid, they begin preparations to move their HQ. Into this situation comes Lee Bang-Ji (Woo Hyeon) with a major new piece of the backstory trailing behind him. I won’t go into the detail of it but, suffice it to say, he was originally a bodyguard for the last Big Root but, because of his divided loyalties, he was not where he should have been courtesy of Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong). That meant all but the current Mr Big Root were wiped out in King Taejong’s raid. On a massive guilt trip, he picked up Ddol-Bok as his disciple and, between them, they reached new heights in martial arts. He also trained Yoon Pyung but he’s nowhere near as good. However, he’s now old and has been beaten but not killed by Gae Pa-Yi who’s lining up to be the final big match contender for world champion when he gets to fight Ddol-Bok. While we wait for this fight, there’s a major political debate about the King’s motives for pushing these letters on to the people and whether it would be a bad thing.

Yoon Je Moon nicely balancing rationality with fanaticism

Mr Big Root puts his finger on a fundamental piece of dishonesty from the King who had grown really fed up and annoyed because the people were so unwilling to help themselves. They just stood around acting helpless all the time and were not assertive, even when their lives depended on it. If the King was being honest, he would admit he lost his love for them and decided he would shove the responsibility for self-help down their throats by teaching them to read. That way they’d never be able to use their inability to read as a defence for their inaction. More importantly, if they wanted to complain about a corrupt official, they could just write the King a letter and he would deal with it. As it is, the bureaucrats are filtering all the news to ensure his majesty never gets to hear the bad stuff. But Milbon’s problem is that if everyone did learn to read, they could all learn basic principles of civilised life from the Confucian works. Literacy could be the way to lift Koreans into a new level of sophistication. Unfortunately, when Milbon tracks down the missing Prince, they discover the first book to come of the printing presses will be Buddhist — a large chunk of the population used to be Buddhist before the nobility and scholars got all fired up about Confucianism. Outraged by what they see as a direct attack on their beliefs, they kill the Prince and send his body back to the King. Not surprisingly, the King is upset and it’s up to Ddol-Bok to tell him a few home truths.

Jo Mal-Saeng (Lee Jae-Yong) finally declaring for the King

Does a farmer love the animals? No he herds them and, when they are needed for food, he kills them. This is the unsentimental way of farmers. Is the way of the King any different? He calls the King a hypocrite for saying he wanted to transfer “his” responsibilities to them. Does he not know the slaves and peasants were already weighed down with the responsibilities of getting through life having enough to eat and without being arbitrarily killed? How can giving them any more responsibilities make their lives better? Yet if the King disliked or even hated his people, he would not care what happened to them. He would not fight to give them an education. So he must actually love them enough to democratise them through the opportunity to learn. So, after some thought, the King decides the rationale for his new writing is that it will be the “righteous voice of the people” and through a complicated plot involving Jo Mal-Saeng, So-Yi and her three female helpers are sent out into the countryside to do their thing under the watchful eye of Ddol-Bok. As we leave this quartet of episodes, Mr Big Root has just twigged that he’s been outmanoeuvred and sends out all his men to find these plague carriers before they can infect too many people.

It was sad to see Lee Bang-Ji die in the arms of Ddol-Bok but at least he had the satisfaction of a warrior’s death. Lee Jae-Yong as Jo Mal-Saeng has finally declared himself on the side of the angels, while Jang Hyuk and Han Suk Kyu continue to shine. Their relationship has lifted Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) out of the ordinary as a former slave now gets to tell the King hard truths when they are needed. Yoon Je Moon is also developing into a good antagonist as Mr Big Root. Without his thoughtful opposition, this series would have ground to a halt.

For other reviews of this series, see:
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — the first four episodes
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes five to eight
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes nine to twelve
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes thirteen to sixteen
Tree With Deep Roots or Deep Rooted Tree or Bboori Gipeun Namoo (2011) — episodes twenty-one to end

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