Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow (2011) Korean Movie review

Hello. This is Prof. AKIA with a review of "Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow / 조선명탐정 : 각시투구꽃의 비밀" (2011) starring #KimMyungMin #HanJiMin #OhDalSu. 

In preparation for its sequel,Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” (2015), which is coming out in a few days, I decided to watch the original movie, “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011). I had not seen it before.

Well that is what I thought!

About an hour into the movie, I got the feeling that I had seen this movie. And it was not because the movie was basically following the “period buddy action comedy” format established by Hollywood around the turn of the 21st century.  Examples would be “Wild Wild West” (1999), “Shanghai Noon” (2000), and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003).

I have to confess that the only thing I kept in my brain was the scenes with the female lead of the movie and she only comes into the movie about an hour into the movie.

 I am a dude after all!

Considering that I basically remember a thousand hours of movie and television at least vaguely in my brain, this does say something about Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011). It is simply not that memorable movie although not terrible at the same time.

As a side note, the English title is not the worst translation although a not terribly accurate one either. Considering the translation practices I hear happening in China nowadays, this movie’s title seems like a masterpieces in comparison. The accurate translation would be “The great detective of Joseon: The secret of the monkshood flower”. In a way, the English title is more to the point regarding the plot since the monkshood flower is essentially not even a MacGuffin but just a plot point in the movie.

This is somewhat representative of the movie itself as it is not on the point for most of the time.

The Plot
The movie opens with your standard Hollywood cold open with “Kim Jin” on a huge tax embezzling case set in the Joseon dynasty some 200 years go. According to a text crawl, “Kim Jin” is a detective for the king. If you know Korean history, you know that this is a fictional position that the movie made up for no other reason than to use the term “detective”. There were real life Korean official titles that could replace the term “detective” without any issue. This is just an example of the chunkiness of the movie’s screen play. It tries to be overly elaborate for no reason while not doing the proper legwork and world building.

“Kim Jin” gets arrested for some contrived reason and then bumps into someone who seems like a dog thief. He was stealing a breed of dog that did not exist in Korean at the time the movie is set in and he thinks like a modern dog lover which was not the case in real life. Things explode and there is a lot of running and action.

After that fiasco, “Kim Jin” goes back to the capital and gets unconvincingly ripped a new one for his failures and gets sent to a nowhere place to examine a claim of a “Virtuous Widow” which just happens to be at the place he wanted to go to further his case. This is where the monkshood flower comes into play as it is harvested where he is sent to.

Virtuous Widow” is an official commendation for dead married females who were viewed to have lived exemplarily in accordance to Confucianism virtues. It was a big this at the time for a woman to get noticed. Think a lessor version of being named a Catholic saint.  

The dog thief follows “Kim Jin” way back to the capital and way down to a dump somewhere in the countryside for no reason. “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) does a real poor job with exposition either not providing enough or locating the scenes where it does not make sense to have them.

Kim Jin’s case leads him to more convoluted intrigue, action, comedy, and etc.

The period buddy action comedy format
Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) does not skew away from the movie formula of the Hollywood period buddy action comedy. This is used in movies where two unlikely guys bump in and go on a journey of action and laughter but set in a past with a slight hint of steam punk aesthetics.  

Right off the bat, “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) reminded me of “Shanghai Noon” (2000), and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003). You can just say that “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) is a “Shanghai Noon” (2000) clone and you would have actually done the best job at describing the movie.

With this formula, movies tend to live and die on the buddy dynamic. Usually, Hollywood movies go for the funny guy and straight guy dynamic since it is proven to work better with delivering jokes. “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) drops the ball in this area since both members of the buddy duo are funny guys albeit slightly different types of funny guys.

The results is that a lot of the jokes do not really land. I think about 80% of the jokes were not funny while the rest were just amusing. While some jokes seemed to be flawed from conception, a lot seems to miss the mark on delivering the punch lines by beat.

And this also seems to show in the action of the movie.

Movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) have very humorous action scenes which are tightly choreographed to maximize their comedic effects. With “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011), they are not very memorable action scenes although none are overtly terrible. It just seems like the choreography was not terribly great and not tightly edited enough to generate the amount of energy required from the scenes. It feels like they are a beat too slow.

Just having scores reminiscing of a bond movie action score does not do it.

The Characters
Like with any period buddy action comedy movie, “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) depends heavily on the character dynamic between the duo. This is more so because the movie itself is not very funny. And I would have to say that the two male leads do have decent chemistry considering a two funny guy dynamic does not really work most of the time.

Ichabod Crane” from “Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
“Sterling Archer” from “Archer” (2010-)
“Austin Powers” from “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997)

The main protagonist, “Kim Jin”, feels like part “Ichabod Crane” from “Sleepy Hollow” (1999), part “Sterling Archer” from “Archer” (2010-) with a sprinkling of “Austin Powers” from “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997). While the character is well acted by Kim Myung-Min, I do not think the character fully comes together as what he can do and who he is tend to shift according to the plot a lot. In comparison, the “dog thief” is at least consistent in his characterization except for the fact that the plot ends up messing with him in service to the contrived plot twists.

Even for a buddy action comedy, the duo is not enough to carry a movie. You have to a memorable villain. “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) totally fails at this part with the big villain barely in the movie until the end. While the movie has a random henchmen and a so call “Darth Vader” type left hand bad guy in the movie, the movie also barely uses him.

Thus, most of the movie ends up being the two leads bumbling around random henchmen number 2 for most of its run-time.

The Screenplay
A lot of the issues with the movie are with the screen plays since most of the actors are decent and well-cast for what their roles require. The screen play is simply not good.

For one, the screen play is too convoluted trying shove a lot of elements into the plot that were not required. Second, it is simply not funny. Third, it depends too much on contrivances and Deus ex machine solutions. If I had more belief in the screen play, I would actually think that this was a satire on the genre itself. But it is not.

I did mention a very lack luster villain already.

This whole thing is rather a shame since there are some interesting ideas in the mix like the whole early Joseon Christian angle. For this type of movie, the screenplay does not need to be deep but it needs to be lean and funny.

In conclusion
For the movie it tries to be, “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) is not a bad movie. However, it is a movie that I put on par with “The Lone Ranger” (2013) but with far less money and somewhat less interesting or tight action scenes. Even compared to “Shanghai Knights” (2003), the sequel to “Shanghai Noon” (2000), “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) lacks a lot even if you consider the budget difference.

However, “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) is not a bad movie. If you rent or stream it, it would be not a total waste of a time even though you may not get what is going on at the end.

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” 

This leads me to think about the sequel coming out. “Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow” (2011) does not shout out for a sequel since there is not much of an overreaching plot and a vibrate world to the movie. Considering the poor world building of the first movie,  I am not particularly interesting in visiting the world of this movie again. Because of this, I expect Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island” (2015) to be the “Beverly Hills Cop II” of the franchise at best and “Beverly Hills Cop III” at worst. It is just a decreasing return for cloning the same movie over and over again.

I give it a score of C+

Score: C+ or 5.25/10

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