Friday, May 20, 2016

Phantom Detective: Korean Noir Cults and Vengeance-Seeking Gumshoes

You do not simply leave a cult like the GU Group, even if you are the modern day reboot of the Joseon Korea’s celebrated literary Robin Hood character. However, Hong Gil-dong’s mother sacrificed her life so that her young son could escape to freedom. Instead of wealth redistribution, the adult Hong is more concerned with stone cold revenge in screenwriter-director Jo Sung-hee’s Phantom Detective (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Ever since the night Hong fled the cult village his capacity to feel fear and empathy were short-circuited. Of course that is not such a bad thing for a sworn vengeance seeker. His steeliness also serves him well in his chosen profession. Technically, the glamorous President Hwang’s father chose him to work for the powerful family’s detective agency, but Hong immediately took to the work. Most cases he can close in an eerily short span of time. The only exception is his own. Finally, Hong beats a lead out of some unsavory elements as to the whereabouts of Kim Byung-duk, the man who killed his mother, but following it up will take him down quite a rabbit hole.

Oddly enough, Hong discovers GU Squirrel Busters have already abducted the apostate Kim before his arrival. Not to be denied his vengeance, Hong enlists young Dong-yi and Mal-soon under false pretenses to help find their guardian grandpa. His initial intentions are questionable, but he reluctantly broadens his focus after uncovering evidence the GU Group is planning mass murder.

Viewers should be duly warned: Dong-yi and Mal-soon will have to be aggressively cute to melt Hong’s frozen heart. They will definitely give the heartstrings a workout. As a short term consequence, Hong comes across as a thoroughly despicable jerkweed. At least they are surrounded by engaging and endearing villagers, like the former mob muscle turned likable lug innkeeper (not overplayed by the surprisingly effective Jung Sung-hwa).

Jo maintains the weird tone throughout the film, cranking up the paranoia while depicting Hong as almost supernaturally hardboiled. Frankly, the tone is not so very different from the 20th Century Boys franchise, which is a good thing. To that end, Byun Bong-sun’s film noir cinematography is just stylized enough to be unsettling but not enough to distract from the action at hand.

In his first film since completing his mandatory military service, Lee Je-hoon fully commits to Hong’s iceman persona, while Roh Jung-Eui and Kim Ha-na are duly heart-rending as Kim’s granddaughters. For extra, added fun, Go Ara entertainingly vamps it up in her too brief scenes as President Hwang. Yet, it is Kim Sung-kyun who really delivers the genre goods as Kang Sung-il, the ruthless son of the GU Group’s corrupt guru. He has played heavies before, but he takes it to the next level up in Phantom.

Even if you are expecting Jo’s big twist, you will be impressed by how far he is willing to take it. He is not playing any games in the third act, that’s for sure. There is also a good balance between payoff and tragedy that should satisfy both Korean and American audiences. Recommended for fans of dark, visually distinctive cultist thrillers, Phantom Detective opens today (5/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.