The Accidental Detective (Tam jeong deo bigining)

Korea (2015) Dir. Kim Jung-Hoon

Murder and comedy do not always make for great bedfellows in cinema. Getting the balance right between gravity and levity is a thankless task when eventually one has to give way to the other without either being compromised. In his second feature, Kim Jung-Hoon makes a valiant attempt to amuse whilst engaging us with a twisting murder case.

Kang Dae-Man (Kwon Sang-Woo) runs a small comic book store after failing to become a police detective due to a minor physical complaint, yet this doesn’t stop him from studying real life crimes and trying to figure them out. Thanks to his detective friend Joon-Soo (Park Hae-Joon), Dae-Man gets to see some of the official procedure up front, offering his opinion to Joon-Soo on occasion.

Someone unappreciative of Dae-Man’s opinion is grizzled veteran Senior Detective Noh (Sung Dong-Il), recently demoted to work under his former junior Seo (Lee Hae-Young). When Seo-Yung (Lee Un-Jung), the wife of Yong-Gyu (Lee Seung-Joon) a mutual friend of Dae-Man and Joon-Soo, is murdered, Joon-Soo is framed as the prime suspect and arrested. To clear Joon-Soo’s name, the unlikely pairing of Dae-Man and Noh join forces, exposing a deeper case than first thought.

The basic plot is inescapably clichéd as is much of the distracting humour but Kim Jung-Hoon compensates for this on two fronts – the charisma and chemistry of the odd couple leads and the density of the murder case itself. It may be suffused with hit and miss comedy and a premise that would never occur in reality, but the twists and misdirection of the big reveal are on a par with any straight crime thriller.

Anyone familiar with Korean comedies will be well versed in the formula: a whacky first act, a saggy middle section introducing the drama that leads to an overwrought final stretch. Kim’s script essentially follows this template, supplanting the romantic drama with brutal murders and the lachrymose finale with high-tension violence, yet feels more cohesive as a result, since thrills and laughs rely on a similar energy to work.

Dae-Man initially comes across as hapless man-child who would rather play detective than run his shop or look after his own children, much to the annoyance of his short-tempered wife Mi-Ok (Seo Young-Hee). Yet at the police station during his first meeting with Noh, he is able to discern a man’s innocence through evidence overlooked in the pursuit to shut the case quickly.

Ironically, Dae-Man was at the flat the night Seo-Yung was killed but both he and Yong-Gyu were passed out after a heavy night drinking. Again, Dae-Man spots things the police miss which earns begrudging kudos from Noh, although he makes it clear Dea-Man should stay out his way and let him investigate the case – that is until Joon-Soo is arrested.

Cue the mismatched personalities journeying on the same road to find answers which Kim is able to put a unique twist on through an unexpected shared gripe – both men are henpecked Henrys! Dae-Man is expected to raise the kids while Mi-Ok is at work and does all the housework, which disgusts Noh, incurring accusations of Dae-Man being “neutered”, until Dae-Man learns an interesting home truth about Noh.

The domestication of Dae-Man supplies much of the comedy, not limited to him being forced to sneak out of the house with his newborn daughter in tow. If you are expecting gags about nappies being changed whilst giving chase on the freeway, consider yourself satiated. However it is the interactions between beleaguered and uptight Noh and enthusiastic usurper Dae-Man that delivers the biggest laughs.   

Noh’s exasperated reactions are spot on and we find ourselves sympathising with him each time he can’t get a word in because of Dae-Man obliviously treading on his toes. There is one very quick visual gag that is brilliant in its simplicity, encapsulating everything about this awkward relationship with greater volume that streams of dialogue could.

Once the details of the murder case begins to widen and a second murder takes place, the humour is, as expected, largely relegated to the background which is for the best as the crimes are pretty grisly with no scope for comedy anyway. Superficially the two crimes aren’t connected by Dae-Man isn’t so sure and further digging into a prior murder case under suspicious circumstances opens up a different line of inquiry with alarming results.

Kim’s script doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of the genre, resulting in audience suspicions being formed early on as to whom the culprit is but sufficient red herrings and plot twists to cause a rethink. In the grand tradition of the murder case playbook, Kim takes us – and our protagonists – to the very edge of an expected reveal only to throw a clever spanner into the works at the last minute, the swine!

Possibly an overlooked facet of the film is the role women play in it. By no means a feminist parable, they are usually strong willed, dominant and certainly not beholden to the traditional housewife role. Without spoiling exactly how this factors into the murders, an interesting dichotomy is presented through reflecting the acceptance and rejection of this modern attitude.

As mentioned earlier the success of the film hinges on the central performances of Kwon Sang-Woo and Sung Dong-Il. Overcoming the trite set-up, a credible chemistry is created, given room to evolve over the whole duration, establishing both personalities in equal measures. Director Kim keeps the pace nice and steady throughout except for the final act which suffers a needless two-part coda that drags the film beyond its welcome and at two hours, some trimming was needed.

The Accidental Detective is one of those films where one can pick the faults in the script, the lack of originality, level of humour, etc. and perhaps be validated in this, but when it comes down to the ultimate question “Were you entertained?”, the answer is an emphatic “yes”.

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