On paper at least, Private Eye (literally, Shadow Murder) looks mildly promising, as the film boasts a collection of talented actors, including Ryoo Deok-hwan (Like a Virgin), Hwang Jeong-min (Black House) and Oh Dal-soo, and the period atmosphere (1910 colonial Korea) was created by the same person responsible for the wonderful sets used in The Good, the Bad and the Weird. And, just as Kim Ji-woon’s kimchi western provided a badly needed respite from Chungmuro’s endless stream of costume dramas, gangster films and adolescent comedies, a Chosun gumshoe yarn would be a welcome breath of fresh air for Korea’s ailing film industry. However, if Park Dae-min’s debut was supposed to signal the birth of the detective genre in Korean cinema, it was unquestionably a misfire, saddled as it is with stale humor, weak suspense, and a paper-thin plot that takes an out-of-left-field twist at the end that seems utterly inappropriate.
Hwang plays a detective (Jin-ho) who earns a living snooping on adulterers and selling his pictures to tabloids. His sole ambition is to go to the States, where he hopes to find even more opportunities (though this idea is never developed any further). Ryoo here wastes his talent, portraying a timid medical intern (Kwang-su) to a prominent Japanese physician (played by Kim Eung-soo) who cares less for his patients than about money. Oh Dal-soo is cast as the Japanese chief-of-police.
One night, Kwang-su comes across the body of a murder victim in the woods and brings it back to his home to hone his surgical skills, not realizing that the victim is the son of a powerful government official. When the hapless intern discovers his mistake, he turns to Jin-ho to find the murderer—though just how this will exonerate him is unclear, as are many similarly puzzling holes in the threadbare plot. On their way back from the scene of the crime, Jin-ho and Kwang-su are followed back to town by the killer, and a chase scene ensues, with disagreeably choppy-looking camerawork that cannot disguise the nonsensical roof-jumping sequence that follows.
Jin-ho just happens to have an aristocratic friend who doubles as a chemist and optician, and who supplies him with his spy camera and other tools of the trade. Evidence found on the corpse of yet another victim leads Jin-ho to a ruthless circus ringmaster and knife thrower (Yoon Je-moon), who has an unsavory business relationship with the local chief-of- police. Jin-ho’s search for the murder weapon leads him to volunteer for the knife-throwing act, a stunt guaranteed to please filmgoers, though we are never shown how he made off with one of the daggers under the watchful eyes of the killer and hundreds of spectators. When a young trapeze artist is seriously injured, Kwang-su rushes her back to the hospital, but the head physician refuses to treat her for lack of money. In what is apparently intended to be a dramatic high-point of the movie, the young intern defiantly challenges his superior, saying he’ll treat her himself, at which point the story goes off in another direction and no more is heard of the young lady or any repercussions for having confronted the head surgeon.
Korean films are notorious for mixing up genres, and when it works, the results can be quite devastating. But when it doesn’t, as in this film, it just ends up being a confusing mess. Up until the moment we discover the “shocking truth” about the killer and his victims, the picture has been a rather light-hearted (if altogether unenjoyable) romp, though a few chuckles could be heard from some schoolgirls seated at the back of the theater. When the facts about an organized crime ring emerge in the final minutes of the film, it appears wholly incongruous with everything that has preceded it. The ending leaves room for a sequel, a door which we fervently wish won’t be opened.