DETECTIVE K: SECRET OF THE LIVING DEAD is the third film in the slapstick South Korean sleuthing series, and until now, I was entirely uninitiated. Being an obsessive completionist, there’s no way I could watch the second sequel in a franchise without context of the original and forgive myself in the morning; so I binged all three films in a row, emerging bleary eyed in a colorful blur of light hearted mystery-solving from the peninsula.
Broadly, DETECTIVE K is Sherlock Holmes in South Korean disguise, and follows the sort of formula you’d expect. The Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. flicks must have made a splash in South Korea, since the release of the first DETECTIVE K came not too long afterwards. It’s hard not to believe they were riding coattails with these adaptations of the novels by author Kim Tak-hwan and while they could be criticized for being derivative, they have their own unique character that could only come from its South Korean identity.
The story this time sees the wacky duo of Detective Kim Min (Kim Myung-min) and Seo-pil (Oh Dal-su) taking on a supernatural threat, somewhat out of step with Secret of the Virtuous Widow and Secret of the Lost Island, since neither previous instalment strayed into the paranormal. There’s far more computer generated action here, probably to keep up with the series’ cinematic peers and retain the attention of younger audiences. It’s an odd shift from the previous entries which, while fantastical, were far more grounded in reality.
The bright, colourful outer layers of these films belie dark themes, particularly in Secret of the Lost Island, which revolved around the sex trafficking of young children. The juxtaposition of slapstick comedy and true unpleasantness is odd – something mostly alien to Western storytelling – and my Anglo sensibilities tell me this is a tonal flaw. It could be common in South Korean narratives and I’m just an outsider with skewed expectations, so I should be careful in my judgement.
However, there are plenty of scenes which make identifying with the main character a challenge. To put it simply, he’s a pervert, and while his awkwardness and mild lecherousness is played for laughs, I can imagine certain scenes would cause discomfort for a few folks in the audience.
With all that said, the chemistry between Kim Myung-min and Oh Dai-Su is genuine. They play well off each other and – when not being creepy – are very likeable and funny. It’s their relationship that carries the series and makes it fun to watch. The plots are suitably convoluted, but really only serve as background to the hijinks of the main characters.
I think the series as a whole suffers from bloat. It could use a trim here and there to lose some of the fluff and SECRET OF THE LIVING DEAD is no exception. It’s lucky that the antagonists are entertaining enough to pull the audience through the duller spots. As the series has worn on, I think there’s been more and more pressure on the actors to make up for the shortfalls of the screenplays, and personally, I’m not convinced there’s enough steam to keep going too much further beyond this third instalment.
The DETECTIVE K films seem to have found a devoted audience in their homeland, and I can’t see why the creators would stop producing them now despite a lack of creative impetus. While I don’t think they’re particularly good enough to recommend to people who don’t watch Asian cinema, they’re worth a look for those of us who do, if only for the performances by Myung-min and Dal-su. Even though I’d had enough by the end of my marathon binge, and I sound like I’m being overly harsh… I’d probably come back for a fourth film to revisit the characters after I’ve had time to recover.
DETECTIVE K: THE SECRET OF THE LIVING DEAD will be available to view via digital September 25th.