South Korean film “The Night Owl” is a well-made period drama thriller which mixes fact and fiction a bit better than I expected. While its story and characters are inherently limited by the story from the beginning, the movie still engages us as its fictional hero desperately tries to do the right thing in front of increasing perils around him, and we come to care about not only him and but also a few other characters around him.
The story is mainly set in Korea, 1645, and the opening part of the movie introduces us to Kyeong-soo (Ryu Jun-yeol), a blind common lad who has distinguished himself well via his exceptional acupuncture skills. When he happens to get the attention of the palace doctor on one day, he is immediately employed, and he is certainly happy about that because this will improve the living condition of him and his sick younger brother, though his younger brother is not so pleased about not seeing Kyeong-soo during next several weeks.
Anyway, it does not take much time for Kyeong-soo to draw lots of attention in the palace thanks to his first-rate professional skills. When Crown Prince So-hyeon (Kim Sung-cheol), who was taken hostage by the Qing Dynasty of China at the end of the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, returns to the palace, Kyeong-soo quickly gains the trust of the crown prince as handling the sick body of the crown prince, and the crown prince subsequently shows some generosity after coming to learn more about Kyeong-soo at one point.
Meanwhile, the crown prince is determined to bring some change into his kingdom, but he frequently finds himself in conflict with his father King Injo (Yoo Hae-jin). Still reeling from his wounded pride around the end of the Second Manchu invasion, King Injo strongly objects to his son’s suggestion for more changes including how they should deal with the Qing Dynasty, but, to his disturbance and annoyance, his son gains more political support day by day, and it becomes more possible that his son will succeed him much earlier than expected.
However, as already told to us right from the beginning of the film, the crown prince does not live that long. At one night, his physical condition is suddenly deteriorated a lot, and Kyeong-soo is hurriedly brought along with the palace doctor, and that is when he comes to see something he is not supposed to see. While he cannot see at all during daytime, he can actually see in the dark for some unspecified medical reason, and, due to one small coincidence, he witnesses the crown prince being poisoned before his eventual death.
At first, Kyeong-soo considers keeping this horrible secret to himself because he may get himself killed for that, but he eventually decides to tell it to a few people in the palace he can trust. Once she comes to learn of the truth from Kyeong-soo later, the wife of the crown prince is surely willing to do anything for justice as well as her and her young son’s safety, and there are also a bunch of high-ranking officials who are ready to help her and her son once Kyeong-soo’s testimony is firmly confirmed.
However, things soon get quite more complicated as the palace is completely shut down from the outside world as ordered by the king. It seems that he will simply cover up everything for protecting his political position, and Kyeong-soo consequently finds himself running away from those palace soldiers. If he is not very lucky, he may not survive the night, and the truth will certainly be buried along with him in the end.
Steadily paying attention to what is being at stake for Kyeong-soo and several other main characters, the screenplay by director/writer Ahn Tae-jin keeps things rolling with enough tension and suspense. In case of a tense moment where Kyeong-soo must look absolutely blind in front of a certain kind of threat he can clearly see in the darkness, it feels rather clichéd, but it is still effective enough to make us brace for ourselves, and I also like a certain wordless moment between Kyeong-soo and the wife of the crown prince when both of them suddenly come to realize who is really behind the death of her husband.
If you know a bit about the history of King Injo and his son like me, you already know well how the story eventually ends, but the movie continues to hold our attention before arriving at its predestined finale because of the strong acting from Ryu Jun-yeol, who is sometimes poignant as his character is driven more by his conscience and loyalty. While there is really nothing much he can do in the end, Kyeong-soo keeps trying nonetheless to the end, and you may appreciate some fictional poetic justice in the epilogue part of the story.
Several performers surrounding Ryu in the film are also fine in their respective supporting parts. Choi Moo-sung, Cho Seong-ha, Park Myung-hoon, Kim Sung-cheol, Ahn Eun-jin, Jo Yoon-seo, and Yoo Hae-jin have each own moment to shine, and Yoo surely has some showy moments as his character, who has been regarded as one of the crummiest kings in the history of Joseon Dynasty, shows more ruthlessness and pettiness along the story.
In conclusion, “The Night Owl” is a standard period drama stuff in many aspects, but it works fairy enough to entertain us thanks to its efficient storytelling and several good performances. It did not surprise me much on the whole, but it accomplishes as much as intended despite the unavoidable limits in terms of story and characters, so I will not grumble for now.