Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸) – ★★☆☆☆

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

It’s 1975, and Joseon (Korea) is struggling. The country relies heavily on imported goods from Japan to sustain the economy, particularly silver. Yet when a deluge of counterfeit silver currency enters circulation, Joseon’s very existence comes under threat. Detective Kim Min (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) and his trusty sidekick Seo-pil (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) are sent to investigate, however instead of being rewarded for his efforts the sleuth is bizarrely exiled onto a tiny island. There he befriends young servant girl Da-hae (Lee Chae-eun (이채은) whose sister has mysteriously disappeared and, disregarding his royal punishment, sets out to solve the both the counterfeit silver and kidnap conundrums, yet what role does Japanese giaseng Hisako (Lee Yeon-hee (이연희) play?

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Comedy-sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is much like the original – colourful and madcap, sporadically humorous, and tonally all over the place. Kim Seok-yoon steps back into the director’s chair bringing all the same strengths and weaknesses as before, resulting in halfhearted yet quite amiable Sunday matinee fare.

One of the great strengths of Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow was the tongue-in-cheek nature of the comedy combined with an OTT pretentious hero who, more often than not, was a victim of slapstick situations of his own making. Detective K 2 delivers much the same, as investigator Kim and loyal sidekick Seo-pil are caught in farcical situations that end in silly humiliations. However as much of the original’s charm has dissipated, such encounters provoke titters rather than laughs. This is often due to a lack of gags and set pieces, but primarily a consequence of the relationship alteration between the lead duo. In the first instalment the pair frequently clashed, comedically employing misdirection as their friendship developed, yet in Detective K 2 they are close comrades and the chemistry has dulled as writers Kim Su-jin and Lee Nam-gyoo have characterised the duo as more serious, and sometimes downright mean, in nature. Actor Kim Myeong-min still hams it up as the arrogant sleuth as best he can despite given far less opportunity to do so, while his frankly horrible characterisation towards servant girl Da-hae makes him quite dislikable as well as detracting from his journey to solve the case. Meanwhile Oh Dal-soo tries desperately to make his character more relevant in a story that largely regards him as a prop.

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective K 2, while competently helmed by returning director Kim Seok-yeon and featuring the same impressively zany and colourful interpretation of old Korea, contains tonal imbalances even more severe than the previous instalment. In the original the largely fun narrative gave way to a story about religious persecution which diluted the light-hearted appeal; in the sequel however the case involving counterfeit silver gives way to themes involving prostitution, child slavery and murder, and paedophilia. Such issues are not appropriate nor ripe material for a slapstick adventure like Detective K and naturally the film suffers for it.

Despite such concerns, Detective K 2 is generally a well-made and jovial jaunt through old Joseon. The film consistently features attractive set designs and amusing comedy set pieces, enough to consider it an enjoyable, if largely forgettable, viewing experience. That said, if director Kim Seok-yoon wishes to return and complete a successful final instalment for a Detective K trilogy, the tonal imbalances, characterisation, and a female role that requires the respective actress to do something other than look attractive, is an absolute necessity.

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Verdict:

Comedy sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is a zany and cheerful jaunt through old Joseon, much like its predecessor only less so. While returning director Kim Seok-yoon helms the shenanigans competently, the film suffers greatly from mismanaged characterisation as well as employing weighty themes involving child murder, slavery and prostitution. Sporadically humorous, Detective K 2 is amiable, yet quite forgettable, matinee fare.

★★☆☆☆

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Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Deranged (연가시) – ★★★☆☆

Deranged (연가시)

Deranged (연가시)

Plagues unleashed upon a populace – often resulting in zombification – tend to be used as allegories of socio-cultural change in premiere examples of the horror genre, such as those by George A. Romero. Yet the realities of an incurable disease (sans monsters) are equally as horrific as such narratives edge ever-closer to a world that has experienced a variety of influenza pandemics. The 1995 thriller Outbreak, or more recently Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed Contagion in 2011, emphasize the importance of following protocol and the cooperation of pharmaceutical companies in preserving the human race from deadly viruses. Less science-fiction, more science-fact.

Deranged (연가시) is writer/director Park Jeong-woo’s (박정우) attempt at conveying the brutal fury of a rampant epidemic on Korean soil, and he does an excellent job of ramping up the tension and suspense to convey the fear and panic of the country through one man’s attempt to save his family. While plot holes and the suspension of disbelief are occasionally distracting, the conjugation of skilled directing with the effective editing and musical score make Deranged a highly compelling and entertaining disaster film.

Suffering financial hardships due to terrible stock advice from his cop-brother Jae-pil (Kim Dong-wan (김동완), father-of-two Jae-hyeok (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) must perform all manner of services to keep his family afloat. Yet the pharmaceutical company Jae-hyeok works for has been reduced to little more than an administrative branch, and with little room for promotion and bills mounting, the pressure is becoming intense. As news reports begin broadcasting the mysterious deaths of people throughout the country, the authorities are at a loss to explain the phenomenon – what is known, however, are that the victims suffer an unquenchable thirst before death. As the affliction spreads akin to an epidemic, Jae-hyeok begins noticing the symptoms of the illness within his family, forcing him and Jae-pil to set aside their differences and race against time to find a cure before it’s too late.

Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Bodies begin mysteriously appearing in rivers, with the cause of death unknown

Deranged is largely a success due to the well-balanced script, which focuses on the characterisation of those affected whilst never losing sight of the national scale of the event. In depicting scenes of government officials and scientists scrambling to do something – anything – to halt the spread of the epidemic and generally making terrible decisions, writer/director Park Jeong-woo consistently places the ramifications of such verdicts on the nuclear family at the center of the narrative, intelligently constructing reasons for deviating away from the central protagonists yet providing further impetus. As such, the removal of cell phones from the infected to halt criticism on social networks may well be in the government’s favour, but the lack of communication with loved ones makes the situation unbearably intense and emotional for those afflicted. Park Jeong-woo also never allows the stakes to be forgotten, skillfully constructing horrific sequences of mass suicide as well as more intimate  individual death scenes, wonderfully edited to provide riveting-but-brief glimpses of the horror yet still allows enough mystery to compel audiences for more.

Such sequences would be meaningless without the attention bestowed upon Jae-hyeok, his wife Kyeong-soon (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and their two children. Jae-hyeok is, at least initially, an unlikeable protagonist as he continually praises those taking advantage of his financial situation yet vents his frustrations on his innocent family. However as the situation escalates the universal theme of a father desperately attempting to protect his family is fully exploited, and as such his character flaws tend to fall to the wayside. While somewhat limited in the role of wife and mother, Kyeong-soon also personifies the protective mother and her inner conflict of desire vs. responsibility is equally as compelling as Jae-hyeok’s race against time.

What makes Deranged stand out against other examples of the genre is the social commentary, which is equal parts subtle and heavy-handed. As is usually the case, money and greed are vital issues within the narrative both at personal and governmental levels; however what is interesting about Deranged is the way in which it is linked to suicide. It is no secret that Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, yet it’s a social theme that is rarely interrogated cinematically. With Deranged, director Park Jeong-woo specifically links money with suicide, squarely positioning capitalist greed and the desire for commodities as the source of horror in Korean society. Sequences in which the populace race desperately to kill themselves are as horrifying as they are senseless, with the anguish of those attempting to stop them keenly felt. The epidemic, the director posits, is greed.

Jae-hyeok's wife and children begin exhibiting the signs of the illness

Jae-hyeok’s wife and children begin exhibiting the signs of the illness

In terms of performance, Kim Myeong-min as financially-challenged Jae-hyeok is very much the center of the film. He is an ‘action hero father’, a man willing to do everything to save his family whether from monetary woes or the sweeping epidemic. What he seemingly can’t do is show affection to his family, making the protagonist quite unfavourable particularly in the first act. Kim Myeong-min is highly competent in conveying such frustrations throughout, from his subservient role with superiors to venting annoyance to family and friends, however his rather unemotional behaviour with wife Kyeong-soon detracts from the urgency his mission as family saviour should contain.

Ironically it is Jae-hyeok’s long-suffering wife, played by Moon Jeong-hee, that provides the heart of the film due to her close relationship with the children and her internal conflict of being strong for their sake. While she occasionally slightly overacts, Moon Jeon-hee’s emotive style of acting contributes greatly to convey the severity of events and provides a much greater sense of the importance of love than her co-star. In many respects, it is Moon Jeong-hee’s performance that not only conveys the morality of the narrative but is also the most prominent in the film.

As cop Jae-pil, and his scientist wife Yeon-joo, Kim Dong-wan (김동완) and Lee Honey (이하늬) perform competently despite their secondary supporting roles. They seem to exist within the film largely to allow the narrative to explore the proceedings within law enforcement and laboratories, acting as a moral compass within each institution that is heard but ignored. As such they are highly effective in providing information and outrage in equal measure, as well as in halting contrivances that would glaringly exist without their inclusion. Although somewhat limited, each actor performs well and help to spur the narrative forward at a thrilling pace.

Jae-hyeok must overcome all manner of obstacles - including the panic-stricken public - to save his family

Jae-hyeok must overcome all manner of obstacles – including the panic-stricken public – to save his family

Verdict:

A compelling and highly entertaining science-fiction/horror blend, Deranged is a success due to the emphasis on characterisation and a fear that is much more based in reality than imagination. While certain plot holes appear, the directing, editing and musical score combine to produce a great thriller underpinned by a keen socio-cultural message, making  Deranged one of the better disaster films to emerge from the Korean film industry.

★★★☆☆

 

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Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

Detective K: Secret of a Virtuous Widow (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀) – ★★★☆☆

Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀)

Detective K (조선명탐정: 각시투구꽃의 비밀)

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 (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.

Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

Detective K and his dog-thief partner evade the authorities

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 (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 (Han Ji-min (한지민), who may have more answers than she claims. Pulling strings from the sidelines is Minister Lim (Lee Jae-yong-I (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.

Seductive temptress Gaek-joo creates a stir

Seductive temptress Gaek-joo creates a stir

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.

K tries to use illustrated pornography to solve his predicament

K tries to use illustrated pornography to solve his predicament

Verdict:

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.

★★★☆☆

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