“Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” is a disappointing follow-up to the far more sprightly “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011), also helmed by Kim Sok-yun. Though not without some zingy segs, this South Korean period action-comedy-adventure — about a brilliant detective with a bumbling streak and his far more entertaining sidekick — is hampered by jarring tonal shifts and undisciplined plotting. The resulting mishmash rises just above the mediocre. Pic has hit paydirt locally with 3.9 million admissions since its Feb. 11 release, while U.S. box office performance, following a limited rollout on March 6, has been modest.
The titular character is Kim Min (Kim Myung-min), a brainy and occasionally inept late-18th-century combo of Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes. According to pre-titles text info, the nobleman, inventor and master sleuth works on secret commands given by none other than the (unseen) Joseon dynasty monarch King Jeongjo. This time around, the ruler wants Kim to investigate fake silver from Japan that’s threatening to destabilize the Korean economy.
The script hits a snag from the outset with a way-too-long sequence showing Kim and sidekick Seo-pil (Oh Dal-soo) busting a bandit gang headed by a fearsome, unnamed boss (Choi Moo-sung). The story then suddenly leaps ahead six months with Kim now in exile on an island. With no explanation ever offered, it’s anyone’s guess as to why the king’s handpicked investigator has been banished after a successful mission.
Anyway, things get back on track with the appearance of Da-hae (Lee Chae-eun), an adorable moppet from the lowest class of society. The plucky and clever youngster has swum from the mainland to beg for Kim’s help in finding her missing sister. After brushing off the persistent kid, Kim receives clues about shady silver-related business in the Japanese settlement near Seoul, and with Seo-pil in tow, he slips away to the mainland. Though risking “death by poison” for absconding, Kim is given assistance and protection by an unnamed government bigwig (Jung Won-joong), further raising the question of why Kim was exiled in the first place.
The rest of the yarn is an alternately bumpy and smooth ride that frequently promises to kick into high gear but never quite gets there. On the plus side, there’s Kim’s contact with Hisako (Lee Yeon-hee), a Japanese-speaking, Korean-born geisha whose slinky moves and villainess potential bring a nice touch of spice to proceedings.
The film’s major stumbling block is the emerging connection between counterfeit silver production and Da-hae’s missing sibling. Hundreds of other girls have also gone missing and many are now washing up on ocean shores, and the sight of dozens of dead children hits the wrong note in what’s packaged as an action-adventure romp, and may prove very distressing to some viewers. All sea lanes eventually lead to the “cursed” location of Dragon King Island, where yet more extremely disturbing information about the kidnapped girls comes to light. On the brighter side, there are some exciting fight sequences and daring raids and rescues involving the inventions Kim is constantly dreaming up.
Keeping the film afloat through its numerous patches of choppy narrative water is the witty interplay between Kim and Seo-pil. The best moments usually involve the sidekick proving to be smarter and more practical than a boss who claims he can “process 18,000 things in the blink of an eye.” While Kim Myung-min is perfectly OK in the lead, he lacks that X factor to make Detective K a truly magnetic figure. Oh easily steals the show with his expressive face and perfect comic timing. The other actors don’t get much of a chance to shine, though Jo Kwan-woo scores a couple of good shots as a supposedly blind zither player whose true vocation is malevolent rather than melodious.
Pic is efficiently if unspectacularly directed, and attractively lensed by “Virtuous Widow” d.p. Jang Nam-cheol. Topnotch costuming and production design complete the glossy package.