By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Employing an attention-grabbing mix of stylistic techniques, this is an intriguing amalgam of genres, resulting in a viewing experience that may divide some audiences. It’s main character is loosely taken from the one found in a 16th century South Korean novel (the novel’s origin date and authorship have been hotly debated), a Robin Hood-style folk hero who was determined to stamp out government corruption and class inequality. This famous piece of writing has finally been translated into English, and released through notable booksellers in 2016, but the story has been adapted into many formats (film, TV, comic book) over the decades, including a very successful television series in 2008.
This entry is updated to the 1980’s, although the eclectic use of costume and set design, in tandem with the tonal shifts in visual styles, creates a world that taps into various time periods.
The story centres on Hon Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon), a brilliant-yet-calculated private detective who works for a self-funded agency, run by sultry President Hwang (Ko Ah-ra). Sherlock Holmes-like in his ability to swiftly close difficult cases, Gil-dong is currently obsessed with solving a case that has haunted him for twenty years; the murder of his mother. This traumatic event occurred in front of him when he was a small child, but Gil-dong has had trouble locating the person responsible, Kim Byeong-deok (Park Geun-hyeong), and this long quest for revenge has taken a huge toll on him emotionally and psychologically.
A new lead comes Gil-dong’s way, which sees him driving out to a remote mountain area, where the elusive Byeong-deok is now residing. But on arrival he finds, to his frustration, that the murderer has been kidnapped by another party, and instead comes face-to-face with his two granddaughters, Dong-i (No Jeong-ee) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na), who are noticeably upset and want their beloved guardian safely returned. Seeing them as a way to get to the source of his nightmares, Gil-dong takes the kids onboard, but finds that managing two children while trying to uncover clues (via deception) and deal with violent opponents proves more troublesome that he could ever have imagined.
Phantom Detective takes its time setting up various characters and subplots. It’s measured pace, along with deploying a variety of visual tricks to tell its tale, may initially irritate or even put-off viewers, but those patient enough will start to see rewards as the film progresses. Writer/director Jo Sung-hee employs CGI animation (somewhat similar to Sin City) to vividly display a comic book-style atmosphere at various points, but will then revert to old-school set design to trigger a feeling of 1940’s film noir. These images are augmented further by gorgeous use of colour and lighting, allowing the film to attain multiple identities and interpretive layers, perfect considering its mysterious, detective-type narrative.
Another welcome novelty, given its 80’s setting, is the lack of mobile phones, and it’s quite refreshing to see Gil-dong having to use a run-down public phone located in the middle of nowhere. One can look deeper at its combination of plot threads, small-town/rural settings, and ambiguous period visuals as a snapshot into the darker moments in Korean history, but Sung-hee never allows this fascinating allegory to overtake the movie’s inherent entertainment value.
Lee Je-hoon has been making a name for himself in both TV and film, with impressive turns in productions such as Bleak Night, Architecture 101, The Front Line, and My Paparotti. Here he is very good, but doesn’t fully command the screen in the way needed to make a story like this completely soar. A comparison in big screen charisma would be Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder, Rules of Dating, The Host, My Dictator), a talented actor who may have given the title character added nuance and flavour. As mentioned, Je-hoon delivers solid work (the chemistry between him and the two children is excellent), and this already popular performer’s output will only get better as time goes on. The supporting cast, mainly Geun-hyeong, Kim Seong-gyoon, Ko Ah-ra, and Jeong Seong-hwa, are all having fun with the material, giving each role additional weight and distinction.
However, the film is stolen by its two young co-stars, Jeong-ee and Ha-na, who are extraordinarily natural and confident as the children who at-first get under Gil-dong’s feet, but of course eventually work their way into his heart. Their continual reaction to the deceitful ways Gil-dong extracts information is hilarious, as is Mal-soon’s inability to keep a secret. Both Dong-i and Mal-soon are complete, well-rounded creations, and Sung-hee never lets either role fall into cheap sentimentality or clichéd cuteness. The way in which the two attach themselves to Gil-dong is as enjoyable (if not more so) than the main plot itself, and oddly offers a more dramatically satisfying pay-off.
Sung-Hee deserves high praise for his individualistic approach, with the shifting tone and style providing, at times, a sense of unpredictability, something rare in modern cinema. His screenplay allows his characters to organically develop, ensuring they never play second fiddle to the technical wizardry on display, and as such, we have a human story told in a dazzlingly stylish manner. With only two other films to his credit, the starkly compelling, post-apocalyptic End of Animal, and the supernatural romance/drama A Werewolf Boy, this film-maker is already building a diverse, fascinating body of work. I am already looking forward to see what he does next.
Phantom Detective is a joyous blend of elements that will enthrall and entertain viewers who are willing to take the time to find its wavelength. For those that are, numerous pleasures await, and despite being a relative disappointment at the South Korean box-office, one hopes we will see the return of detective Gil-dong, involved in another mystery that is as engaging and inventive as this one.