Now here is a movie with an unusual provenance. Keigo Higashino is a popular writer of mystery fiction in Japan, and it is his very popular novel “The Devotion of Suspect X” which this film adapts. However, the Novel is part of a series about his Detective Galileo character, and this film takes the rather strange step of removing that character from the story completely. Not only that, but the novel was adapted in its homeland a little while ago (and I shall be reviewing it in the next week or so), which already potentially makes this film either redundant, or smart enough to walk its own path. Read on to see how I felt things turn out.
“Perfect Number” concerns itself with the story of reclusive and nerdy Mathematics Professor Suk-go (Ryu Seung-beom), a lonely man driven only by his love of Numbers and his unrequited (and let’s face it somewhat creepy and stalkerish) love for his neighbour, the pretty divorcee Hwa-sun (Lee Yo-won). Hwa-sun has basically moved to Seoul to escape from her abusive ex-husband Cheol-min (Kwak Min-ho), and to dedicate herself to raising her Niece. However, Cheol-min tracks her down, and attacks her. Hwa-sun and her niece fight back, and end up killing him. Suk-go hears it all through the thin walls, and immediately goes next door to help. He then concocts a perfect alibi for the pair. When the body is discovered on the banks of the River Han, although suspicion falls upon Hwa-sun, the Police eventually have to discount her, partly because of the where the body is, and also because she has a very verifiable alibi. Thing is, Detective Min-bum (Jo Jin-woong) knows in his gut that Hwa-sun did it (she may have a perfect alibi, but she has a cast-iron motive), even though his superiors and colleagues constantly tell him otherwise. It turns out though that Suk-go is an old classmate of his, and whilst reawakening their friendship, he begins to realise that his genius school-friend quite possibly is involved in this case. Can Min-bum solve the identity of the murderer? And what of the changes in the relationship between Suk-go and Hwa-sun?
Long time readers of this blog (and I mean before it got all Asian cinema obsessed) will be aware that my favourite TV Detective is Columbo. One of the things I adored about that show is that the identity and act of murder are usually (there are a couple of exceptions in a couple of very minor episodes) revealed before our Detective is even shown on screen – and it is the mental combat between the Murderer and Policeman which actually is the most fascinating aspect. And “Perfect Number” follows this template. adding to it a prior relationship between the two main players, as well as giving an additional layer of depth due to the sympathies we must have for the Murderess herself (as she was trying to act in self-defence).
Ryu is quite fantastic here, playing totally against type (usually he plays somewhat comedic characters), managing to bring us a creation that is at times utterly cold and withdrawn, but also driven to help those he loves. He is at once totally disconnected by those who exist in the mundane normal world, but has utter respect from those who appreciate his abilities (Min-bum is obviously in awe of his old friend’s abilities, as is a young student). Jo is interesting as the Detective, being believably old-school in his approach to detective work, although he doesn’t really get the back story that his major role deserves, other than by exposition. Lee is more than eye candy, pretty though she is, and works best as a woman cracking under constant pressure and guilt, although she does struggle to generate real chemistry with the other main players.
For me the problems with the film start around the 70-80 minute mark, when the main mystery is solved, and there is extended sequence that is all about melodrama, basically explaining the deeper reasons that Suk-go has for trying to help the women. It is important stuff, but it really hurts the pace of the film – what is said and shown is very important, and is great character work, but I not sure it needed to be revealed this way. It may well have been better introduced much earlier to allow for a more linear progression (although this would have meant the murder would have happened far too late, introducing Min-bum simply too late), or have been drip fed to us throughout the film.
I loved the Detective and his work as it all about gut instincts and personalities – not the obsession with science and evidence that is so prevalent these days. But do I buy their school relationship? With that I am simply not so sure, as they are just a little too different to have really been friends as portrayed. My guess is that this is the part of the original story that Galileo was a much better fit for, and possibly needed to have been written here just a tad differently.
It is however beautifully shot – Director Pang a real visual talent, and brings a really unique approach to proceedings – I really liked her “Princess Aurora”, and this is a big step forward. Her ability to cast and use Ryu in such a different way really impressed me, and I am expecting even better things from her next stint behind the camera.
I really enjoyed this movie, but that final act simply did not work quite as well as it ought, dampening my enthusiasm just a little. Watch it for a brilliant performance, and an interesting storyline, but be aware that it does have a uneven structure, and there is actually no mystery to solve (to be fair, there is the mystery of how the Alibi works, but it is so simple most of you will get it in about 15 minutes). It is however well worth looking out for, and I will give it a Recommended.