At The Movies: Period thrills in The Night Owl, The Pale Blue Eye

Yoo Hae-jin (left) and Ryu Jun-yeol in The Night Owl. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

The Night Owl (PG13)

118 minutes, opens Thursday

4 stars

The story: A royal acupuncturist in 17th-century Joseon Dynasty has day blindness, but sees at night and witnesses the murder of the crown prince. His effort to reveal the truth leads him into danger.

Crown prince So-hyun was found dead in 1645, presumably killed by poison.

The Night Owl is faction. South Korean writer-director An Tae-jin’s feature debut – a huge domestic hit– constructs a supremely tense dynastic thriller by adding the fictive acupuncturist character to the historical events surrounding the famously shocking incident.

Gyeong-su (Ryu Jun-yeol) is underestimated by everyone because of his visual impairment, but his other senses are acute. He hears all that passes behind the palace walls. And he is nimble with his needles, using them ingeniously in a manner not prescribed in any traditional Chinese medicine manual to deliver justice after exposing a vast political conspiracy involving the king (Yoo Hae-jin), his physician (Choi Moo-sung) and the premier (Jo Sung-ha). There are betrayals and beheadings amid the bloodthirsty power struggle.

What can a commoner do when his own life is at stake? Who would even believe a blind man as a witness? This is a movie of rich ironies, with Gyeong-su a deeply sympathetic hero in his courage and decency.

“Humble people pretend they can’t see to survive,” he says, and yet, blindness can be a blessing and seeing a curse for showing the evil people do.

Hot take: And you thought acupuncture was only for treating indigestion.

The Pale Blue Eye (M18)

Christian Bale (left) and Harry Melling in The Pale Blue Eye. PHOTO: NETFLIX

128 minutes, on Netflix

3 stars

The story: Christian Bale stars as a retired detective who recruits a wily West Point cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) to help solve a series of grisly homicides at the United States Military Academy in 1830 New York.

The Pale Blue Eye continues Bale’s run of dramas with his Out Of The Furnace (2013) and Hostiles (2017) writer-director Scott Cooper – although “run” may not be the best word for this slow-going gothic whodunnit based on Louis Bayard’s 2003 bestseller.

Cadets are being slain with their hearts carved out amid the grey winter gloom, and Bale’s solemn ex-constable Augustus Landor is methodical in his sleuthing despite the scandal-shy academy hurrying him to conclude the investigation.

Thankfully, there is a hammy Melling to help viewers pass time. All grown up from his Dudley Dursley days in the Harry Potter films (2001 to 2011), he plays Poe as an overweening pasty-faced weirdo excited by the macabre. “I am a poet,” he announces to Landor.

That he is. The father of modern detective fiction was also briefly a military student.

These are the only biographical truths in an invented origin story of Poe that recasts the budding author as amateur gumshoe, fighting black magic and the ghosts of loved ones alongside fictitious mentor Landor.

The duo’s central relationship ends in a bizarre climactic twist. Everyone is a suspect in a movie with a murderers’ row of supporting players including Toby Jones, Timothy Spall, Gillian Anderson and Robert Duvall. Even the titular raven from Poe’s 1845 poem gets a cameo.

Hot take: The storytelling is plodding, nothing Poe-tic about it, but Poe himself is a lively, eccentric presence.

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