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THE PHANTOM DETECTIVE
- Writerby Pierce Conran
DIRECTOR JO Sung-hee
CAST LEE Je-hoon, KIM Sung-kyun, PARK Keun-hyong, ROH Jeong-eui, KIM Ha-na
RELEASE DATE May 4, 2016
CONTACT CJ Entertainment
Though the development of the Korean film industry has advanced unabated for over two decades, one crucial aspect of the local field has become a point of concern for some. Following the rise of filmmakers such as BONG Joon-ho, PARK Chan-wook, and KIM Jee-woon, there have been murmurs that over time it has become harder to identify truly original voices among the younger generations of filmmakers. While several theories for this exist, the main one contends that in an industry as increasingly sophisticated and commercial as Korea’s, it is difficult for a fresh voice to be heard and then fostered.
The filmmaking climate has changed remarkably since the late 1990s and the way that new directors make their mark is not what it once was. Nevertheless, as with all evolutions, people have adapted to the current reality with new styles and methods. As such, a new breed of young filmmakers, melding modern visual stylings with necessary commercial sensibilities, has steadily emerged, though people have been less quick to label their commercially-savvy oeuvre as auteurists. At age 31, LEE Chung-hyun, director of the stylish horror-thriller CALL (2020), may well be the latest to join that group, while the elder figure in this young generation could be seen as JO Sung-hee, the director of the current global phenomenon SPACE SWEEPERS.
Though he is known for richly stylized and highly commercial films, Director JO got his start with a bold and very indie project called End of Animal (2011). A graduation feature made at the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), End of Animal presented an unusual post-apocalyptic dystopia and was a hit on the festival circuit. The local industry also took note and within a few years, he made his commercial debut with the hit fantasy romance A Werewolf Boy (2012). But today we’re going to look at his third film, a fiercely original genre mashup called The Phantom Detective (2016), which despite its admirable qualities, ultimately found itself lost in the shuffle of a year that boasted an embarrassment of riches from Korean filmmakers.
LEE Je-hoon takes on the mantle of Hong Gil-dong, a talented private investigator working for a large detective agency. Though it normally takes him a day to track any-one down, one special person has eluded him for 20 years. Then, one day, he’s finally located him and he drives off to the countryside. However, he’s missed the man by mere minutes as a pair of mysterious goons have already carted him off, leaving his bewildered granddaughters in the lurch. Gil-dong is wary of taking on these young charges but he eventually promises to help them find their grandfather so long as they stay out of his way. He jumps on the trail before it goes cold but little does he know how long and strange of a journey he’s about to embark on.
Originally a folk hero that appeared in a Joseon Era tale, Hong Gil-dong has become a mainstay of Korean culture with countless films, TV shows, and books recounting the exploits of a man, often some kind of investigator, who possesses preternatural intelligence and skills. It’s also a common placeholder name, not unlike the way how John Doe is used in the west.
Taking place in an alternate reality modeled after the 1930s, The Phantom Detective (2016) combines several styles, notably film noir and procedural crime, and leans heavily on visual effects for its backgrounds, not unlike the digital mattes used in Sin City. Giving the film its uniquely Korean flavor is a strong dramatic vein that comes from the granddaughter characters and particularly their relationship with Gil-dong, as he slowly softens around them.
JO employs highly literate film language in a mise-en-scene that is sharp and tinged with a sense of romance. Aided by the engaging emotional landscape of the narrative and an impressive cast, the result is a purely cinematic confection that there is scarcely precedence for in Korean cinema, save perhaps for the fairy tale horror stylings of YIM Pil-sung’s Hansel and Gretel (2007).
SPACE SWEEPERS would, of course, see JO blast off to greater technical heights, but his effortless blending of cinematic prowess and emotional registers is already on full display in The Phantom Detective (2016).