South Korean film “Phantom Detective” is an amusing mixed bag stuffed with different genre elements which do not seem to fit together at first but somehow work on the whole in its offbeat concoction. After all, not many movies have all those things including 1) a hard-boiled hero haunted by his past, 2) a couple of plucky grade-schoolers in serious dangers, 3) a shadowy organization with the diabolical plan for attaining something a bit more modest than world domination, and 4) an ominous secret place remained hidden from the outside thanks to the understandable absence of Google Earth. Although it is not entirely successful, I enjoyed its deliberately eclectic style, and I got good laughs as entertained by the spirited performances from its cast members.
Lee Je-hoon, a talented South Korean actor who drew lots of attention from me and others through his two breakthrough turns in “Bleak Night” (2010) and “The Front Line” (2011), plays Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon), a young crime-fighting agent working for the secret agency financed by President Hwang (Ko Ah-ra). With the enormous financial and technical supports from President Hwang, Gil-dong and other agents have smashed many injustices with no mercy at all, and the opening scene shows Gil-dong’s latest operation on a trio of criminals involved with human trafficking. When these despicable criminals belatedly realize that they are outsmarted by Gil-dong, they are already trapped and cornered with no chance of exit, and Gil-dong is fully ready to punish them hard for justice – and some important information to be extracted from them. (the movie thankfully does not go too deep into the graphic details of his unforgiving interrogation process).
The information in question is about where his old enemy Kim Byeong-deok (Park Geun-hyeong) is currently hiding. While he has considerable reputation for tracking down anyone within a short time, Gil-dong has been looking that guy for years without much progress, but now it seems Gil-dong can finally settle an old score with Byeong-deok, who killed Gil-dong’s mother in front of young Gil-dong’s eyes and still haunts Gil-dong’s traumatized mind along with his dead mother whenever he manages to get a few hours of sleep.
When he is almost close to Byeong-deok’s residence located in some remote mountain area, an unexpected thing happens. Byeong-deok is taken away to somewhere by two guys, and Gil-dong only finds Byeong-deok’s two young granddaughters Dong-i (No Jeong-ee) and Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na) when he arrives at Byeong-deok’s house. He manages to hide his agenda from these two young girls thanks to his quick, smart improvisation, but, to his annoyance, he gets stuck with them because he promises to them that he will help finding their grandpa as a ‘public servant’.
The movie draws lots of comic moments from contrasting Gil-dong’s terse, cynical attitude with his young companions’ sincere, earnest behaviors. Eager to help Gil-dong’s investigation, Dong-i dutifully writes down whatever is told in front of them, as if she were Gil-dong’s personal assistant a la Nancy Drew. In the case of Mal-soon, this cute little girl has a tendency to blurt out wrong things at wrong points, and it is the testament to the talents of the director/writer Jo Sung-hee and his young actress Kim Ha-na that many of such moments in the movie are really funny with spontaneous comic timing to tickle us. We understand Gil-dong’s increasing exasperation over Mal-soon’s blunders, but we also cannot help but chuckle thanks to Kim’s unforced acting, which is totally devoid of saccharine artificiality as effectively counterbalancing Lee’s deadpan performance represented by your average noir narration.
None the less, its main characters’ situation is serious to say the least, and the movie never overlooks that aspect. It turns out Byeong-deok was involved with a powerful secret organization, and this organization is planning something big and, yes, evil. As going deeper into the case, Gil-dong soon encounters Kang Seong-il (Kim Seong-gyoon), a ruthless, formidable opponent who will do anything for clearing the way for his organization. Kim Seong-gyoon, who has been one of prominent South Korean supporting actors since his excellent supporting turn in “Nameless Gangster” (2012), imbues the cold, steely aura into his villainous character, and he surely proves here that movies can only be as good as their bad guys.
The movie also has other goodies to enjoy under its stylish atmosphere. Many small period details such as a pack of caramel candy apparently suggest that it is South Korea during the 1980s, but CGI backgrounds are frequently used along with anachronistic touches, and the overall result evokes pulpy comic book style as reflected by the animation design of the end credits. We come to accept this stylized world as being involved in the story, and we have no problem at all with some fantastic elements to be revealed later.
While kudos must go to Lee Je-hoon, Kim Seong-gyoon, and Kim Ha-na, the other cast members in the film are also solid in their respective roles. Park Guen-hyeong brings considerable gravitas to what could be a thankless role, and No Jeong-ee has her own moments to shine. Jeong Seong-hwa is a dim but good-natured ex-thug who helps Gil-dong in more than one way, and Ko Ah-ra has a small fun with her sassy, confident character who has many other things to do besides supporting her No.1 agent.
Although it feels dragged during the third act and the climax part is resolved a little too predictably, “Phantom Detective” has enough enjoyable things to compensate for these flaws. Lee and Jo give us a smart, engaging detective character accompanied with offbeat qualities to be savored, and I hope that Gil-dong will return for another fun adventure to delight and excite us.
Sidenote: Several things in the movie including its hero’s name are clearly inspired by the late 16th/early 17th Korean novel “The Story of Hong Gil-dong”, which is about a thief hero somewhere between Robin Hood and comic book superhero.