An 18th century murder investigation provides frequent laughs in “Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow.” Adapted from a recent popular novel, this enjoyable, easygoing period mystery features a charming perf by Kim Myung-min (“Closer to Heaven”) that strikes the right comedic balance between self-importance and deflated pride. Co-star and Park Chan-wook regular Oh Dal-su reps a vital, commercial ingredient as the detective’s sometimes silly, sometimes smart foil, and boffo results so far ($35.2 million) validate the producers’ optimistic inclusion of sequel options in the script. Pic has been playing limited theatrical runs in North America since March 4.
A 1782-set prologue declares that the titular detective (Kim) is a favorite of reigning Korean monarch King Jeong-jo (Nam Sung-jin). Displaying amazing powers of deduction, the aristocratic detective seems to be 90% Sherlock Holmes, 10% Inspector Clouseau. (It’s a far cry from the Lou Gehrig’s disease patient Kim played in 2009’s “Closer to Heaven.”)
After managing to frame himself for the murder of a man killed by a thin iron needle and scarred by wolfbane, the detective lands in jail alongside imprisoned dog thief Han Seo-phil (Oh). Han slides easily into the role of the pompous hero’s insolent, wisecracking Sancho Panza, and their interplay hits the funny bone with unerring accuracy.
Having embarrassed the king, the detective is “punished” by being sent to report on the suicide of a noblewoman in Jeok-seong, the wolfbane-growing region he had earlier suggested as being key to the murder investigation. For narrative convenience and consistency of laughs, Han decides to tag along. Upon arriving, the two begin to unravel the tangled connections involving the initial outbreak of murders, the victimization of Christians by the dominant Confucian ruling class and the alluring woman (Han Ji-min) who acts as a front for an all-powerful government minister.
The male leads’ breezy repartee recalls that of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies, and one-liners abound as the script underscores that the detective is not always as smart as he thinks he is, just as the dog thief is not as stupid as he pretends to be. Better known for their dramatic work, Kim and Oh take to comedy with ease; while Detective K is ripe for a franchise, the involvement of both thesps will be crucial to the success of any sequels.
Han Ji-min is mainly cheesecake but shows a flair for lascivious humor.
Korean auds, though well amused by the pic’s humor, may also note period references — to topics such as the impact of Confucianism on their nation’s progress, or government proposals to move the capital — as direct riffs on modern-day debates.
Contempo themes are complemented by an anachronistic electro-pop score that punctuates jokes and augments suspense and chase scenes.
Helmer Kim maintains pace with the fast-moving script. Red camera lensing is well handled and continues the high standard set by Korean productions in the celluloid era.