Story: Cheon Kyeong-soo (Ryu Jun-yeol) is blind, but an excellent acupuncturist. When the royal court searches for good doctors outside the walls of the palace, Kyeong-soo is able to prove his exceptional skills during a test. Therefore, he gets a job at the royal court and now has to leave his ten-year-old brother behind, but in doing so he will soon be able to pay for the treatment of his illness. While Kyeong-soo is introduced to life at court, King Injo (Yoo Hae-jin) is allowed to see his son again after eight years. He had been held hostage by the Qing Empire. The prince tries to convince his father that Joseon has to change and learn from Qing if the kingdom doesn't want to decline in the future. The king doesn't want to hear anything about it and advises his son to tend to his chronic cough instead. Kyeong-soo is supposed to take care of the prince, who eventually finds out that the acupuncturist is not completely blind. He can actually see something in complete darkness. Soon, a murder takes place at the court, which Kyeong-soo sees happening at close range. On the one hand, no one would believe him because he is officially blind, on the other hand, the murder was politically motivated, and as a witness he could possibly throw the country into chaos. In the end, however, Kyeong-soo has to ask himself whether he really wants to deny the truth.
Review: While it might be obvious to dismiss "The Night Owl" as just another drama set at the royal court during the Joseon era, the movie unfolds in a way that makes it feel like a thriller instead. Which is more than welcome, because a common problem with movies like this can be their rather leisurely pace. But not here. At the same time, we have an interesting protagonist whose naivety sometimes makes him seem alarmingly passive, until there is no other way for him but to change. In addition to the obligatory story about intrigue and betrayal, there is also a murder in the foreground, whose investigation is implemented in a gripping way and fits seamlessly into the aforementioned court intrigue. At this point, it should almost go without saying that the images, sets, and costumes are all well done. When it comes to this area of expertise, Korea rarely experiments, and knows how to convince.
Director Ahn Tae-jin may be making his debut here, but he was already an assistant director on "The King and the Clown", which gives him a steady hand. The images are aesthetically pleasing, and especially some of the scenes at night or in the dark know how to win you over with their atmosphere. Unfortunately, there are no experiments, so most of it we've already seen somewhere else. That's a pity, because the unusual protagonist in particular would have offered room for a few more unusual images. At times, Ahn even tries to implement Kyeong-soo's extraordinary vision problems, but he does it in a very cautious and insecure way. Especially towards the end, you would have expected his vision to have a greater impact on the course of events, but in this respect, you will be disappointed. Nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that visually, "The Night Owl" plays in a rather high league.
The story starts with the real Prince Sohyeon, who wanted to implement big changes in the country. This historical basis is then expanded by the acupuncturist Kyeong-soo, and we see most of the story from his point of view. He is a naïve young man with extraordinary abilities, but from the very beginning he made up his mind not to interfere much in the events at court, as he only wants to earn money there in order to finance the treatment of his young brother. Although the story about his brother doesn't get elaborated much, it represents a suitable motor for our protagonist to move forward. The fascinating thing is that the acupuncturist makes some decisions that are not that easy to understand. He could also be described as a coward, but he only acts that way because he doesn't think he would be able to influence the political intrigues at court anyway, and also because he doesn't want to be caught between the different parties - after all, he has to take care of his brother.
Ryu Jun-yeol ("Alienoid") does a decent job portraying the protagonist, but the character's passiveness might easily have made him come across a bit shallow if it weren't for the changes that happen towards the end. The rest of the cast doesn't stand out that much, but they do a pretty decent job too. Only Yoo Hae-jin ("Confidential Assignment 2") steals the spotlight as the sick king who has some strong paranoid traits. Usually, Yoo is only known for rather comical roles, but here he shows in an impressive way that he is also able to do something completely different. This makes the king into the most interesting character of the story, and you would have liked to see even more of him. Still, the story knows how to use its characters to advance the events, and so there are no lengths in "The Night Owl", even though there are no action scenes to be found anywhere.
In the end, the movie turns out to be a well-done thriller with enough twists and turns to always remain gripping. The relationships between the individual parties as well as the actions and decisions behind the scenes constitute an additional charm of the story and also provide the necessary suspense. On the negative side, though, you don't necessarily feel emotionally attached to the characters. Surprisingly, that doesn't mean that "The Night Owl" comes across as cold or distant, but it takes a while for the movie to really get going. In the end, however, we get a gripping thriller, which provides a nice backdrop using the royal court during the Joseon dynasty as scenery, and which also knows how to convince visually with its sets and costumes. With its nice pacing after the more leisurely introduction, it never gets boring thanks to numerous revelations, and so "The Night Owl" clearly belongs to one of the better Joseon flicks.