[This review originally appeared as part of our PiFan 2009 coverage and re-appears now with the film screening at Fantastic Fest.]
it is the early 1900s and Jin-Ho is master of his own destiny. Ignoring the social unrest around him - Korea has, after all, just recently been occupied by Japan - Jin-Ho has adopted a devil-may-care, path of least resistance approach to life, swaggering and smirking his way through a career as private investigator tracking unfaithful wives for jealous husbands, his only goal to make enough money to leave Korea for good and head to America. That Jin-Ho is superior to the work he does is obvious, that he knows it even more so, that he has some sort of hidden past the unspoken truth. But it is not until a young doctor-in-training comes to him with a unique problem that Jin-Ho is jolted out of his self-imposed rut. You see, our young doctor - Kwang-Su - has discovered a dead body and, rather than reporting the discovery to the police, he has taken it home for dissection and study. Which he probably would have gotten away from if not for the fact that the body turns out to be the son of a high ranking government official and daddy is officially unhappy that his son is missing. Knowing that the discovery of the carved-up body will lead to his immediate conviction as the killer the desperate Kwang-Su needs to find the real killer before the body is discovered and for that he needs professional help. He needs Jin-Ho and the bounty posted for the recovery of the corpse and / or capture of the killer is just what is needed to convince him.
With a plot that branches and twists to include opium smuggling, international politics, police corruption, a child-prostitution ring, a knife-throwing circus performer and a princess that longs for the life of a scientist / inventor, first time writer-director Park Dae-Min has very clearly bitten off slightly more than he can chew with Private Eye. There are simply too many balls to keep in the air and the result is a film with muddled focus and a tendency to jump from action sequence to plot point as quickly as possible just to fit everything in. As Park commented during the Q&A session afterward there was a good amount of material written and shot for the film that was later omitted for pacing and run time and those omissions are definitely felt with minimal background information being given on any of the major players and more than one plot thread introduced seemingly out of nowhere only to be abandoned shortly thereafter. That said, Private Eye two great strengths: the sumptuous production design and star Hwang Jeong-min as Jin-Ho.
Richly detailed and deeply immersive, Private Eye plays out in a lushly designed set that sinks the audience into an absolutely convincing history. Equal parts factual reality and artistic speculation, the sets were designed by the same team that brought Kim Jee-woon's The Good, The Bad And The Weird to life on screen and the results are no less impressive here. The setting and production design, in fact, ultimately ends up being at least as compelling and important as many of the characters on screen.
The real gem of the picture, however - and the element that keeps it being eminently watchable even when the plot stumbles - is the charismatic Hwang in the lead role. An absolutely perfect casting choice, Hwang so flawlessly embodies the smirking, dissolute Jin-Ho - a man for whom life clearly meant something at some point but who has abandoned any sort of ethic larger than ease and wealth. He has a devil-may-care attitude fused with playful dangerousness that makes him compelling to watch, his fusion of Asian influences with the obvious nods to American noir bringing to mind Tetsuya Watari's performances in Nikkatsu Action pictures Velvet Hustler and Gangster VIP.
Hwang Jeong-min has long been one of Korea's hidden gems, a consistently stellar performer generally tucked away in support roles who turns in a timeless performance here in a rare lead, a performance that masks many of the film's obvious flaws and makes for an entertaining ride even when the going gets bumpy. Writer-director Park clearly needs some more seasoning but, thanks to Hwang's performance here making the film a modest hit in Korea, he will certainly get the chance to learn and adapt from the experience.