Science and superstition clash to generally entertaining effect in “Blood Rain,” a Korean costume whodunit that mixes gutsy action, tasty production design and more red herrings than a fisherman’s smokehouse. Anchored by an unusually sober perf from Cha Seung-weon (“Kick the Moon”) as a Chosun-era imperial investigator trying to solve a series of grisly serial murders on an island, pic could become an audience-pleaser on the fest circuit, with modest theatrical potential beyond East Asia with the right distribs. Local biz since release in early May has been a sturdy 2.3 million admissions.
Film comes out just ahead of another costume detective yarn, Lee Myung-se’s “Duelist,” set for fall release in South Korea, though “Blood Rain” is more procedural and forensic than Lee’s visually elaborate martial artser. “Blood” is closer to the style of popular Chinese detective stories from the Qing dynasty, especially as popularized by Dutch scholar Robert van Gulik with his Judge Dee novels (also planned as a movie franchise).
In 1808 on the remote island of Donghwa, “blood rain” (symbolizing disaster) has been predicted and the local female shaman is conducting a purification ceremony. Donghwa has become economically prosperous thanks to its high-quality paper mill, but when a ship due to carry a paper tribute to the mainland bursts into flames, the islanders panic.
Post-intro, pic settles into a procedural format, with each day marked by captions. On Day One, investigator Lee Weon-gyu (Cha) arrives to solve the arson, but is immediately confronted by the impaled corpse of a well-known drunk and gambler, whose passing no one seems to regret. Lee is hosted on the island by Kim In-gweon (Park Yong-woo), son of the paper mill owner, who appears to want to stymie the investigation.
As the murders mount, Lee realizes the crimes may be linked to the execution seven years earlier of Commissioner Kang (Cheon Ho-jin) and his whole family, who were suspected of being Catholics. The extra wrinkle is that Lee’s own father, a well-known official, was involved in Kang’s execution. And there’s also the mystery of a reclusive young swordsman, Du-ho (Ji Seong), who was devoted to Kang and his beautiful daughter, So-yeon.
Film trades on the whole paraphernalia of detective stories, with witnesses shot as they’re about to reveal something, chases through the port town and surrounding forest, plus apparent attempts on Lee’s own life. Plot is often too labyrinthine for its own good — the solution is, in fact, very simple — and pic would benefit from slight trimming in its mid-section. But there’s enough incident, and intriguing details like 19th-century Korean forensics, to maintain interest.
In his sophomore outing following the offbeat melodrama “Bunjee Jumping of Their Own” (2001), helmer Kim Dae-seung, a longtime assistant director to Im Kwon-taek, directs with a busy rather than innately stylish hand. Atmosphere comes from the realistic sets by production designer Min Eon-ok (“Chunhyang”) — especially the paper mill, all rope pulleys and rickety planks, and the bustling harbor set — plus the realistically lived-in costumes.
Orchestral score, which surfs on themes from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, may raise a smile from music-savvy Westerners but does an atmospheric job in the latter stages.