Written by Sung Cho-yi
Directed by Lee Jung-heum
The shadow of Killing Eve runs throughout so much of Inspector Koo in these opening two episodes. That’s not to use that observation as a harsh complaint; movies and television have given us so many complex male-versus-male dynamics in pop culture that to get stories that feature two female characters pitted against each other intellectually amongst a high body count means that one perhaps cannot help but make comparisons to one of the sadly few female-led depictions of high stakes antagonism.
Where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s blend of comedy and thriller set itself within the high stakes world of espionage and assassination, Inspector Koo being centred around life insurance investigation may look smaller scale, but it reveals itself to be equally high octane and complex as it goes on.
For while Killing Eve will be the series that many will refer back to in talking about it one can also sense the inspiration of Sherlock. Lee Young-ae brings a quirky arrogance to the lead role that is highly entertaining, even if maybe the suggestion that the only thing that can motivate her is alcohol might prove something of a problematic element.
With its imaginative visuals and ability to utilise fun graphics and a lovely design aesthetic to showcase the inner workings of its lead character’s mind as she deciphers mysteries, there is a lot of fun just to be had with Kyung-yi in episode one before episode two starts to lay down further the dynamics for the series’ central conflict.
Of course, the series stealthily introduces Kim Hye-jun in the first episode, misleading the audience into believing that we’re watching an origin tale for our brilliant central character, all the while showing us the beginnings of the series’ central villain, a diabolical serial killer. It’s a great conceit, and yes, it’s something that so much of television does nowadays to gain a ‘gotcha’ moment at the end of the first episode to ensure you come back again, but it works, and it gives the second episode something great to build upon.
Like Killing Eve, the world of Inspector Koo is driven from the viewpoint of two female leads who on the surface may be complete opposites to each other, but who are more alike than they may ever care to admit, even if one is a sociopathic murderer. Femininity drives so much of the story. The main investigation is predominantly led by a woman, who corresponds with other female characters both at the insurance company where she consults for, and on the side-lines by the presence of the mysterious Yong Sook (Kim Hae-sook), whose motivations and larger role in the story are kept at bay for at least these opening two hours.
It goes without saying that Lee Young-ae and Kim Hye-jun are the big draws here. It won’t be for everyone, however. Based on these two episodes, there is a lack of a typical k-drama romance here that comes as something quite refreshing, Instead, the story throws itself into a darker style of quirkiness, building its mysteries and dangling threads in a way that will hopefully prove very entertaining for the next six weeks and twelve episodes, as long as it pays off those threads, obviously.
However, it never dumbs down in its approach, nor does it try to spell things out too easily. There is much in the way of information revealed and divulged, some of which is done via conventional exposition that is well written and delivered, while at other times it’s done by portraying Kyung-yi’s thought process in scenes that remind one of the ‘memory palace’ scenes from Sherlock.
There is an arch quality to the whole thing that might prove somewhat alienating to some members of the audience who maybe just want a conventional mystery that pits an investigator and a serial killer against each other. In no way does Inspector Koo suggest that it’s ever going to become that type of drama. Any sense of the conventional is ignored in favour of a surreal hint to its world and the comedy, where everything is just a little bit off-kilter.
The reveal at the end of episode one is well done, managing to brilliantly, yet subtly, hint back to Lee Young-ae’s appearance in uniform in Park Chan-wook’s JSA back in 2001.
The way colour floods into the flashback scenes right at the moment of revelation after having been shot in a washed-out palette is wonderful, but rather than just simply capitulating itself towards a more conventional style of thriller going forward into episode two, the series settles even more into a tone that feels somewhat heightened. The comedy isn’t even what one might call conventionally slapstick, and when Kyung-yi does something inherently good like talking a teenager out of suicide, the denouement of the scene plays into the elastic tone of the whole thing.
If you can get on board with the series’ borderline surreal sense of humour, then there is a lot to love here. There is a lot to suggest that the elastic tone of the comedy and the engaging moments where the thriller story come together are going to do so with wicked grace somewhere down the line and it leaves one hoping that Inspector Koo will stick the landing. With its webtoon inspired title sequence, not to mention a brilliant soundtrack that gives it propulsive rock energy, it leaves you anticipating where it might go next.