The Scent (Gan-gi-nam)

Korea (2012) Dir. Hyeong-Joon Kim

While serving a two year suspension from the police force for an adulterous affair with a police chief’s wife, detective Kang Sun-Woo (Park Hee-Soon) is running his own private detective agency specialising in adulteries. On the eve of his suspension ending Kang accepts a job from a woman named Kim Soo-jin (Yoon Jae) who wants him to photograph her husband Nam Yeong-gil (Jo Won-hee) in the act with his lover at a motel.

However on the night Kang and Mrs. Kim end up in bed together but when Kang awakes he finds Mrs. Kim has been brutally murdered. He then hears a scream from next door where Nam has also been brutally murdered. When questioning Nam’s shocked lover she says her name is Kim Soo-jin (Park Si-Yeon) and Nam is her husband. Kang finds himself drawn into the case on both a personal and professional level – until his colleagues suspect him of being the murderer.

The second film from Hyeong-Joon Kim is a murder thriller than has been promoted as a more of a mainstream erotica flick. While it contains some steamy scenes and some nudity this is a little misleading in the grand scheme of things, belying the convoluted and taut plot. It also has been promoted as comedy thriller but the laughs are almost imperceptible save for a tacky Basic Instinct parody early on and one or two “blink and you miss them” moments of levity involving Kang’s simple assistant Gi-Poong (Lee Kwang-Soo).

This is one of the downsides of Korean cinema trying to appeal to wider overseas audience with their marketing when the films are usually string enough to stand on their own merits.

After a clumsy start the plot begins to kick in but pay attention because it starts to get convoluted almost straight away. The title refers to the central conceit of the film which is the distinctive perfume both Kim Soo-jin’s wear that is easily recognised by Kang. A fool unto himself, Kang’s weakness for women not only allows himself to be tempted by the first Mrs. Kim but is handed divorce papers by his wife, Hye-young (Cha Soo-Yeon), a high ranking police officer herself.

Then the other Kim Soo-jin comes into Kang’s life with her seemingly implausible story of Nam being her husband. Claiming she didn’t see the killer Kang finds himself with two bodies to hide before the police arrive, especially since Mrs. Kim (the first) died under his watch so to speak! To compound matters further Kang’s obsession with helping Mrs. Kim #2 is encroaching on his police work which isn’t going unnoticed by Detective Han Gil-Ro (Joo Sang-Wook) who is heading the investigating into Nam’s murder – and all roads seem to lead to Kang.

The story twists and turns with fervour to either keep the audience guessing or to completely disarm them through dizziness, depending on your point of view. With two stories running concurrently, then slowly overlapping until finally coming together in the final act, one wonders if Hyeong-Joon Kim either confused himself while writing the script or simply threw darts at a board with his ideas and used whatever he hit.

There are a few occasions where he seems to trip over himself but to his credit Kim does bring things together nicely in the end, although one aspect of the big reveal is almost to out there for words and will probably elicit more laughs than anything else.

As much as the titular perfume is the conceit of the film so is beguiling Ms Kim #2 who is either schizophrenic or has a secret to hide. Either way Kang is quickly ensnared by Kim’s considerable charms, running after her like a lovesick puppy despite the gradual changes in her story which lead Kang down a new path.

Kim is firmly in control and she knows it which Kang is slow to realise, something his estranged wife is quick to notice. The earlier visual Basic Instinct tribute makes way for a more substantial one with Kim’s manipulation of Kang through her sultry allure and sizzling sex appeal but don’t look at this as a belated or lazy rip off.

The delectable Park Si-Yeon made her debut in 2006’s horror comedy The Fox Family, a role for which she was clearly hired for her ravishing looks. The same can be said for this role as the other Kim Soo-jin only she is given more of a chance to act here; this is a chance she grabs with both hands but it seems director Kim felt the fan service was more important.

Admittedly Park sizzles like no other and there is a palpable frisson between her and co-star Park Hee-Soon so she is putting all of her assets to good use but it would nice to see her tackle a straight non-sexual role for a change.

For a relative newbie Hyeong-Joon Kim is a confident director if a little by the book, insofar as there is little to distinguish this from the multitude of other Korean thrillers out there. That is not so much a criticism since this puts Kim in good company but I’m sure he’ll find a voice of his own soon enough. As it stands he is certainly heading in the right direction and he is clearly adept at spinning a decent yarn.

Despite – or possibly in spite – of its suspect advertising slant The Scent is likely to appeal to those who enjoy a taut and twisting thriller and those who want a cheap sexy thrill. Hopefully there more discerning viewers out there who will see past this easy lure and appreciate this film for the competent murder mystery/drama it actually is.