Phantom (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Catch the Spy

South Korean film “Phantom” surprised me more than expected. At first, the movie presents itself as a taut mystery mainly unfolded within a limited background, but then it suddenly shifts itself onto a very different genre mode later in the story. Although its second half is relatively less compelling mainly because almost all of its hidden cards are shown to us, the movie still engages us as deftly delivering its expected big finale, and I was certainly energized enough when I watched it with my sleepy eyes at a local movie theater at last night.

The story is set in Korea around the 1930s, which was the midpoint of the Japanese colonization era. When one prominent Korean Independence organization failed to assassinate the new Japanese governor-general of Korea in Shanghai, China shortly before he comes to Gyeongseong (It is the old name of Seoul during that period, by the way), the government-general understandably becomes quite watchful, and then there comes a big chance to undermine that organization once for all. It is apparent that there is a secret spy working for that organization somewhere inside the government-general, and Kaito (Park Hae-su), a Japanese captain assigned to the mission of flushing out this “Phantom”, is quite determined to accomplish his mission by any means necessary – especially when the Japanese governor-general of Korea manages to survive another assassination attempt not long after his arrival in Gyeongseong.

Kaito subsequently has certain five Korean persons gather at a big hotel located at some remote spot outside Gyeongseong, because these five people happen to draw his attention as likely prime suspects. They are 1) a Korean-Japanese police officer who may have chosen Korea over Japan; 2) a charming young secretary who has worked under the governor-general; 3) a nerdy cryptogram expert working in the communication department of the government-general; 4) a young female employee also working in the same department; 5) a young man who happens to be one of her co-workers.

Once these persons are assembled before him, Kaito makes his plan quite clear to all of them. Very confident that there is the spy among his prime suspects, he promises that he will eventually flush out the spy around the end of the day. If any of them does not come forward for revealing the identity of the spy before the day is over, he is going to “interrogate” them one by one, and that will certainly be very unpleasant for everyone.

Instead of toying with the numerous possibilities surrounding these five main figures, the movie reveals to us a bit more about some of the main characters in advance. This may feel a bit disappointing to you at first, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Hae-young, which is based on Chinese writer Mai Jia’s novel “Sound of the Wind” (It was already made into Chinese film “The Message” in 2009, by the way), steadily accumulates suspense on the screen as the deadly cat-and-mouse game is continued among its several main characters. Under the constant treat from Kaito and his soldiers, each of his prime suspects tries to deal with their tricky situation in each own way, and the movie occasionally gives us some expected moments of humor including the brief but amusing one involved with a pet cat photograph.

Around the end of its second act, almost everything in the story is revealed in front of us, and then the movie goes for lots of sound and fury, but we remain engaged thanks to its good mood and storytelling. I particularly enjoyed how a couple of well-known Hollywood classic films are utilized in the story in addition of being nice period details to decorate the screen, and I also appreciate how the movie has a lot of unexpected fun with two certain main characters gradually coming to bond with each other despite lots of danger and uncertainty surrounding them.

The finale sequence is a little too long in my inconsequential opinion, but the movie is packed with a substantial amount of fun and entertainment at least. Although lots of things happen here and there across the screen, we still care about what is being at stake for several main characters at that narrative point, and the movie does not disappoint us at all in case of the cathartic payoff moment to be delivered.

The main cast members of the film are well-cast on the whole. While Sol Kyung-gu brings considerable intensity to his seemingly thankless part, Lee Hanee and Park So-dam remind us again of why they are two of the more interesting movie actresses working in South Korea at present, and I also enjoyed the solid supporting performances from Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-hee, Esom, and Park Hae-soo, who functions well as an effective opponent whenever his character clashes with Sol’s character along the story.

Overall, “Phantom” is a well-made genre piece which has enough style, mood, and personality to be savored, and Lee Hae-young, who drew my attention for the first time with his likable debut film “Like a Virgin” (2006), and his crew and cast members deserve to be commended for that. Although the first month of 2023 is not over yet, here comes the first good South Korean film of this year, and that certainly makes me a bit more hopeful about whatever South Korean cinema will give us during the rest of this year.

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