In the time of the Joseon Dynasty, corruption is rife; the funds needed for the people are being siphoned off and laundered by shady figures, and the conviction rate is low as the fearful citizens refuse to talk. The King, working hard to consolidate a power base from which to strengthen and unify the country, is in need of help. Enter Detective K (명탐정, Kim Myeong-min (김명민), Joseon’s top investigator, charged by the King to find the scoundrels responsible and bring them to justice.
Detective K: Secret of a Virtuous Widow (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀), from the outset, firmly has its tongue in its cheek. Opening with an apparent suicide, K uses his keen intellect to prove its not the case. Yet he does so in a bizarre fashion, highlighting comedic features of the murder scene such as the incongruity of the faeces pattern, the physical disabilities of the servants that remove them as suspects, and the impairment that points to the real villain. K’s eccentric genius is equal only to his cowardliness and Charlie Chaplin-esque physicality, as he’s regularly involved in awkward situations from which he must flee. If this all sounds similar to Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther series, then you’d be correct as Detective K bungles his way from one crime scene to the next.
Acquitted by the King on false charges, K is sent to investigate the alleged suicide of a widow in a different province, as a cover for continuing his corruption investigation. Teaming up with dog thief Han Seo-pil (개장수, Oh Dal-soo (오달수), the duo must contend with poisonous flowers, quirky country folk, corrupt merchants, and assassins. During the course of the investigation, K meets the enigmatic femme fatale Han Gaek-joo (한객주, Han Ji-min (한지민), who may have more answers than she claims. Pulling strings from the sidelines is Minister Lim (임 판서, Lee Jae-yong (이재용), but is he friend or foe? And how is this mystery intertwined with the suicide of an unrelated widow? Fumbling their way through each scene, K and Seo-pil are very entertaining and the recurring jokes are consistently amusing, such as K’s attempts to bribe everyone with an illustrated pornography book and constantly leaving his partner to take the blame in every situation. Similarly, the seductive Gaek-joo plays a wonderful role in making K even more ridiculously foolish, despite his best intentions.
However, what starts as a quirky and enjoyable romp through old Korea quickly becomes over-burdened with the array of narrative tangents offered. Rather than providing additional layers of mystery, or even silliness, the number of stories being presented serves to convolute the entire plot. For example, the addition of Christian persecution does not feel organic to the story, and the biased way in which the Christianity versus Confucianism debate is conveyed detracts from the enjoyment of the film. Luckily K – who reveals he was only baptized in order to receive a rubik’s cube – has the charm and swagger to recapture the tongue-in-cheek magic and keep the narrative flowing consistently.
Detective K is a charming and very amusing comedy, with enough wit and ingenuity to keep the narrative flowing well despite the convoluted plot threads. The recurring jokes and slapstick comedy routines make Detective K thoroughly enjoyable, thanks chiefly to the actors who all deeply understand the comedy style and perform accordingly. Hopefully, if a sequel does appear, the number of narrative devices will be scaled back to allow the true heart of the film – K and Seo-pil – to continue their whimsical and hilarious relationship.