It’s shocking how difficult it is to pull off a noir detective vibe without coming off as cheesy and/or losing the tone. So it’s a credit to The Phantom Detective that it is so damn entertaining.
Let’s bitch it out…
Each year at Fantasia Festival, I try to seek out at least one fantastic foreign action flick. Last year it was Lupin the Third, the James Bond meets Ocean’s Eleven action/heist film that featured amazing (and utterly ridiculous) action sequences. This year’s strong contender is The Phantom Detective. It is the story of Hong Gil-dong, a loner PI suffering from a childhood amnesia save for a single defining moment: Hong saw his mother killed in front of him by a man named Kim Byung-duk. As an adult working for an agency outside of the law, Hong is driven by a need to track down his mother’s killer and get his revenge, which is where the film starts off.
The opening scene tells us everything we need to know about Hong. Posing undercover, he lures a trio of dumb criminals into a trap, then coerces them into revealing Kim’s whereabouts by threatening their families and forcing them to mutilate one another. This introduction confirms that Hong is a talented liar, knows how to extract information, and is surprisingly dispassionate. The fact that he does all of this with a smile and wit also makes him roguish, a trait that actor Lee Je-hoon plays up throughout the film to help smooth over Hong’s rough edges (his young, attractive features don’t hurt).
Following some truly unfortunate 90s-era CGI over the main credits, Hong arrives at Kim’s home, but just misses him due to a flat tire and the fact that Kim has already been kidnapped. In Kim’s place are his grand-daughters, Dong-Yi & Mal-Soon (Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na). Sensing an opportunity to get closer to his prey, Hong lies to the girls, convincing them that he’s there to find Kim and inviting them to accompany him. The relationship between Hong and the girls is the core of the film and it is here that The Phantom Detective truly excels. First and foremost, the forced interactions between Hong and the girks produces hilarious comedic results, especially early on when the yof gathers clearly don’t trust the professional liar. All three actors have exceptional comedic timing, which are clearly on display when the girls repeatedly interrupt Hong’s interviews with frank questions and contradict his story, regularly prompting looks of aggravation, disbelief and outright hatred from the PI. Of course, this animosity softens over the course of the film as the trio gradually come to rely on and care for each other, especially as the violent stakes are continually raised as they get deeper into the case.
Je-hoon is a chameleon in the lead role of Hong – he’s in vinto ally every scene and the role requires him to toggle back and forth between a half dozen different kinds of emotions and characteristics at any given time. The fact that he’s able to execute all of this at the drop of a hat (sometimes literally) and does so with such unflappable charm suggests that the actor is one to watch.
If The Phantom Detective has any drawbacks, it is simply that the narrative is treading familiar ground. The trio naturally get mixed up in a much larger crisis (improbably involving a cult and a conspiracy to execute hundreds) that dovetails into the truth behind Hong’s mysterious backstory. Along the way Hong comes to realize that he is more of a softie than he initially let on (that the film’s major emotional moments revolve around food, specifically pork and caramels, is so Korean). The Robin Hood character arc isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but writer/director Jo Sung-hee ma ages all of the convoluted plot developments and emotionality well and the inevitable comeuppance of the villain is both satisfying and over the top (with slow motion action to boot!).
Bottom Line: All in all, this modern take on Korea’s famed Hong Gil-dong character is both hilarious and heartfelt, with great performance by lead Lee Je-hoon and youngsters Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na. The genre blending of film noir, comedy and caper film works perfectly thanks to a deft mix of tone, acting and script. The Phantom Detective is simply a great fun film.
The Phantom Detective has no other Fantastia Festival screenings and debuted in limited release in the US back in May. Look for it on video in the future and check out the trailer below: