EXPECTATIONS: A silly, half-hearted noir that grates due to its long running time.
REVIEW: Whether if you have noticed or not, Korean cinema has been on a roll lately with their films and they have all been critically acclaimed as well as financially successful. With films like The Wailing, The Handmaiden, Train to Busan, The Age of Shadows and others, how could a committed moviegoer cannot be psyched about that?
Enter director Jo Sung-hee, a film-maker that has gone through a blockbuster phase lately. His debut feature-length film, End of Animal, was an independent, gritty drama that both equally impressive as well as frustrating. Then surprisingly, he ventured into the fantasy genre with A Werewolf Boy, which was a box office success and I was entertained, although it was too much like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands for my liking.
And now he has ventured into the neo-noir genre with his latest film, Phantom Detective. Will the film keep up the high-standard winning streak of the recent films that I’ve seen, or will it let it down and become the first black sheep of the flock?
Lee Je-hoon stars as Hong Gil-dong, a talented sleuth who runs an illegal detective agency with the wealthy and vamp President Hwang (Go Ara). Hong is able to track virtually anyone down in record time, except for Kim Byeong-Duk (Park Geun-hyung) who has eluded him for many years. Kim is the man who killed Hong’s mother, although Hong’s memory is quite blurred, rendering it unreliable.
One day, Hong learns of Kim’s location and drives there late at night. Right before he arrives, Kim is kidnapped and only his granddaughters Dong-Yi (Roh Jeong-eui) and Mal-Soon (Kim Ha-na) are left. Following his urge for revenge, Hong reluctantly takes the granddaughters to find their grandfather. Soon, Hong finds himself embroiled in more than he bargained for when he uncovers a large conspiracy that could involve the deaths of many innocent people.
First things first, I enjoyed Phantom Detective in the long run. But for the first act, I have to admit, I had huge doubts about whether the film was worth the viewing. Firstly, the main character, Hong Gil-dong, is a dick. And I don’t mean a private dick (short for private detective), I mean, in a derogatory sense, he’s a dick. I didn’t know whether it was Lee’s performance or it was the intentional character portrayal but the smug attitude really bugged me.
Secondly, the child characters were also quite annoying as well. Overly cute to the point of making one’s teeth rot and incredibly intrusive to one’s work, it’s no wonder why Hong gets annoyed with them, let alone that he wants to kill their grandfather for murdering his mother. And lastly, it takes quite a while for one to discover the real plot of the film, so it makes the film drag in its first and partly second act.
But if one is patient enough to make it through all that, it becomes an entertaining film that is ultimately worth your while. The film instantly becomes better as soon as the motivations of the villains come into play. Characters become more human and likable, action scenes become more noteworthy, the drama even packs an extra punch and everything that preceded it becomes more clear. And that is all thanks to Jo Sung-hee’s patient direction.
The visuals and cinematography by Byun Bong-sun give the film a comical, yet nostalgic vibe, reminiscent of film noir and graphic novels, yet it never interferes with the surprisingly dark tone of the film. The action scenes are overall well-conceived, particularly with the use of a fire extinguisher that gave off unexpected tension and suspense. But the hand-to-hand combat sequences are a bit of a letdown, since they suffer from fast-cutting, with hinder the impact of the action.
But the heart of the film are the characters, which the actors truly give their best to their parts. Lee Je-hoon, an underrated actor who has done impressive work in the war film The Front Line and the indie drama Bleak Night, does well in the leading role. He gradually fits into the role of the talented sleuth and he plays the dilemmas of the character quite well, especially in the third act.
The child actors, Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na, are both good in their roles, especially Roh, since she has moments to shine. Park Geun-hyung makes the most out of his integral role as Kim Byeong-duk due to his tenderness with the scenes between him and the child actresses as well as the scene when he is confronted by Hong, which turns the present cliche on to its head.
Go Ara is delightfully vamp in her small role as President Hwang, who is clearly more busy with other tasks than helping Hong out. Jeong Seong-hwa is likable as the comic relief/hotel innkeeper/former crime thug but Kim Sung-kyun is the biggest standout as the villain. With very little backstory on the script, Kim still manages to stand out thanks to his acting. It also helps that his look (the lighting on his glasses) adds to the sheer menace Kim brings to the part.
Alongside the problematic first act, there are other flaws which prevent the film from reaching greatness. There are many genre elements in the film which can work on their own but when mixed together, it can become quite jumbled, if not take you out of the film. When you mix a tortured heroic character with a pair of precocious kids and throw them into a plot that involves a villainous cult, it becomes quite bizarre. Plus, the final act does take a bit too long (suffering from the too-many-endings syndrome) to reach its predictable conclusion.
But overall, Phantom Detective is greater than the sum of its parts, and although it doesn’t reach greatness like the other films of its home country, it is an entertaining diversion that packs committed performances, surprising direction from Jo Sung-hee and an appealing visual style.
Well-thought out action scenes
Character backstories give punch to drama
Cinematography adds to the offbeat feel
Genre elements don’t always mesh
Problematic first act
Cast: Lee Je-hoon, Kim Sung-kyun, Go Ara, Roh Jeong-eui, Kim Ha-na, Park Geun-hyung, Jung Sung-hwa, Kwang Bo-ra
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Screenwriters: Jo Sung-hee