Director Jo Sung-hee's "Phantom Detective" is a play on the crime noir complete with anti-hero Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon), a decrepit town, deranged villains, and stylized filming that brings the world of the comic book to life. There are also two unlikely sidekicks, two little girls who rework Gil-dong's damaged psyche over the course of the film.
"Phantom Detective" was released in Korea May 4, 2016 and 508,000 filmgoers (19.9%) sat down to watch a modern take of the classic Korean tale of "Hong Gil Dong". Last weekend, May 13, 2016, the film premiered in Los Angeles and May 20 saw a wider North American release.
Jo Sung-hee made a big name for himself with his 2012 hit "A Werewolf Boy" starring Song Joong-ki and Park Bo-young. It, too, has a surreal ambience, set in the countryside with a touch of the fantastic. "Phantom Detective", although similar in whimsy, is distinctly set apart from it's predecessor by the cinematography, story, and quirky anti-hero.
Lee Je-hoon, in his first film role since military enlistment, plays the slightly deranged and very brilliant Hong Gil-dong, a man with a dark past like any self-respecting comic book hero. Lee is known for his spot-on portrayal of film characters, winning acclaim for films like "Bleak Night", "The Front Line", and "Architecture 101". "Phantom Detective" is another film in which he cleverly worked his character. Gil-dong is a man bent on revenge, but whose goals morph and change when he meets the grandchildren of the man who killed his mother, Dong-i (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na). Both girls place an unfitting amount of good faith in the nearly immoral Gil-dong, but it is little sassy Mal-soon who challenges him to rethink his blind revenge and his dark lifestyle. (Kim Ha-na is quite the little actress as well!) The connection between Lee Je-hoon and the young actresses is real and present, which adds substance to the beautifully shot film.
We follow Gil-dong's search for the girls' beloved grandfather and Gil-dong's mother's murderer, Kim Byeong-deok (Park Geun-hyung) and discover clues with our detective as well as get sucked into the power plots of criminal organization Gwangeunhae. In many instances, we watch Gil-dong figure things out without being privy to his thoughts. Director Jo plays with the idea that Hong Gil-dong does right by people, but using less-than-moral means. Despite working with the girls who work change over the lifelong wounded Gil-dong, he still retains this aspect of his Robin Hood-like behavior.
What separates this film from being just-another-comic-book-film is the unique incorporation of cartoonish cityscape depictions into realistic portrayals of Gil-dong slinking about and performing his detective work, and the creative filters used to set scenes. I didn't much care for the overexposed desert scenes because the scenes were too washed out, but the result was intentional. Filming of Gil-dong's nemesis Kang Seong-il (played by the excellent chameleon actor Kim Sung-kyun) included purposefully reflecting light off of Kang's glasses so that only lenses can be seen to frame him as less human, a person we only see through a refracted surface. This is shown several other times through other reflective surfaces like windows and mirrors.
The musical score for this was magnificent and not intrusive. Many action-oriented films overdo the music to heighten feelings, but "Phantom Detective" did not. The same holds true for violent scenes. Although violence was presence, it was hinted at or show in limited exposure. In no way did this detract from the movie or from the impact of the violence on the characters involved. The balance by Director Jo between the different elements on screen is nicely done indeed. No sensationalism needed.
Humor also dotted the landscape of the drama, mostly between Gil-dong and the girls. His exasperation with the girls who constantly interrupt his mojo and their exasperation with his inability to tell a single truth are both endearing and humorous. This way of relating to each other spans the course of the film and their relationship. It grows deeper as the girls grow on him. Gil-dong self defines as a liar, but between him and the girls, he can only lie verbally. Small actions, like Mal-soon reaching for his hand and his surprised reaction hold the truth. His words belie his actions with them and it this fact that makes the relationship special. He always lies to them with words, but he is unable to lie in actions - such an interesting juxtaposition and one that Lee Je-hoon plays well. Other small bits of humor were found in his constant wheedling of money from President Hwang (Go Ara), his surrogate sister. Her role was minor and seemed more to include the talented and beautiful Go Ara, but the character does provide the backing he needs to do his work.
Smaller characters like the people in the village were also well-defined despite the fact that their roles were small. Personalities were immediately apparent, which is a sign of good writing. I detest when small characters are blips on the plot map. In "Phantom Detective" the villagers felt real.
For the most part, this film is worth the watch. I'll be watching it again. The neat resolution at the end is my biggest quibble. This doesn't mean it was a good or bad resolution. Please watch and see for yourselves!
Written by: Raine from 'Raine's Dichotomy'
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Journalist, drama lover, and foodie, Lisa enjoys exploring Korea, speaking the language, and soaking in all that dramaland has to offer. Her Korean husband laughs that she knows more than he ever will about dramas and K-pop. Lisa Espinosa can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Phantom Detective""
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