The Phantom Detective. 2016
Directed by Jo Sung-Lee.
Starring Lee Je-Hoon, Go Ara, Park Geun-Hyung, Roh Jeong-Eui and Kim Ha-Na.
Private detective HONG Gil-dong is seeking revenge for his mother who was murdered in front of him when he was a child. An investigation determines that the assailant is a man named Kim, but when he arrives at the Kim’s house, he finds only the man’s grandchildren who tell him that their grandfather was kidnapped. Hong tracks down the vicious kidnapper with help from the grandchildren, but senses that he is not acting alone. The mastermind is the notorious leader of a massive cult – a man with a terrifying, bloody secret in his hands. Now, Hong decides to face him once and for all.
It’s been truly fascinating watching South Korean cinema (and culture in general) boom in the last decade or so, earning an ever-growing following in North America. Over the last few decades, Korean cinema has grown in both scale and ambition, with Korean blockbusters becoming bigger and more extravagant as demand increases both at home and abroad. But it often feels like Korean cinema, or at least the mainstream arm of Korean cinema, is still finding its footing as it experiments with genres and tones. A couple of years ago, it felt like the demand was for gritty, blue-and-grey action thrillers like The Man from Nowhere. But Jo Sung-Lee’s Phantom Detective feels like it’s of a different sort: a visually lively, almost cartoon-like film that still plays by many of the rules of its predecessors, but nevertheless feels like a step in a more interesting direction, stylistically. In terms of actual story and characters, it only manages to be somewhat interesting, which is what ultimately drags the film down.
Phantom Detective‘s visuals are bright, eye-catching and exaggerated, which gives the film enough of an animated feel that one couldn’t be blamed for thinking it was an adaptation of a comic or animated series. Sets, locations and compositions will have a constructed look to them, favoring artifice over grit and realism. That means that on a purely visual level, the film is extremely watchable. What action scenes there are cleanly and eye-catchingly staged, if also a bit uninterestingly. Aesthetically, it’s a fun, breezy, enjoyable watch.
Similarly our star, Lee Je-Hoon as the titular amnesiac detective Hong Gil-dong, is fun to watch in action. Sure, he’s a prime example of stoic masculinity with an almost Batman-like level of badassery and situational control, like many Korean action heroes, but he’s given a foil in his two tiny co-stars. A large portion of the humor in Phantom Detective comes from watching Gil-dong undermined in his unflappable detective shtick by his two pint-sized charges, who sabotage his lies at almost every turn and slowly chip away at his carefully crafted veneer of hard-boiled machismo. Without them, Gil-dong’s act would have worn thin fairly quickly, leaving him as the same kind of bland hero that has plagued other recent Korean action thrillers.
Where things start to get bland-to-forgettable is in the plot itself, a somewhat under-cooked conspiracy where Gil-dong’s massive, almost paramilitary detective agency matches wits with the villainous GA group, who we’re led to believe are some kind of Bond-style secret terrorist organization. Both groups feel vague in their motives and definitions. The GA group are ostensibly out to massacre the residents of a small Korean village, but how this is supposed to lead them to global domination is something that’s never made clear. On the other side of things, Gil-dong’s detective’s agency feels just as shady. They’re apparently on the side of the angels, but they never feel wholly altruistic or trustworthy. They engage in torture and wholesale slaughter (of bad guys, yes, but the way they mercilessly gun down all those who oppose them feels somehow uncomfortable in how unquestioned it is). In contrast to the film’s cartoony visuals, it feels as though it’s written in shades of grey, and perhaps unintentionally at that.
It’ll be interesting to see if the visual style of The Phantom Detective is picked up as a new aesthetic in Korean mainstream film, because ultimately the aesthetic is the one thing the film really has going for it. The world feels like it needs further fleshing out, and while Le Je-Hoon is charismatic in the lead role, he isn’t charming enough to make revisiting the character all that appealing, especially if his child-co-stars won’t be returning for any sequels. The Phantom Detective is an amusing bit of stylized action/thriller fun, but in the end manages to be little more than a distracting novelty.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★