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Phantom Master: Dark Hero From Ruined Empire
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by Jay Seaver

"Half Japanese, half Korean, all disappointing."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I saw "Phantom Master: Dark Hero From Ruined Empire" the night after I saw "Le Portrait de Petite Cossette", and here's the funny thing: Where I started "Cossette"'s review with a comment on how it is not actually a movie, it nevertheless feels more like a movie than "Phantom Master", which feels more like the first two or three episodes of an ongoing television series than a feature film. It introduces the setting, tells a pair of interesting stories, and finishes with the protagonist on his way to the next adventure, after only taking a step or two toward solving its central mysteries.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic one, some years after the fall of the Jushin Empire. Jushin mostly allowed its conquered lands home rule, but abusive leaders would attract the attention of the Amen-Oshi, wandering enforcers who can summon a phantom army to crush would-be dictators. Now, the last of the Amen-Oshi is Munsu, who still keeps to his mission while wandering in search of those who caused the fall of Jushin. His first mission has a dual purpose, though, as he seeks to rescue Chunhyan, the captured (and formidable) girlfriend of Mon-ryon, a merchant who saved his life in the desert. After that, they investigate an island city where things seem peaceful, but they aren't quite right.

Phantom Master is billed as the first animated collaboration between Korea and Japan, and its lineage shows. The character design is reminiscent of Korea's Wonderful Days (aka Sky Blue), but this is a much more polished-looking movie; the occasional CGI elements are integrated much better, and the character animation is much smoother. The spoken language is Korean, although credits are presented in both languages.

There will be folks who absolutely eat this film up, and I can't blame them - it's made up of popular elements, and they aren't stitched together in a haphazard, clangingly artificial way. The folks who like the dark futures will enjoy the after-the-fall setting, and the hero is cool and unflappable, a handsome badass who saves the day despite not believing in heroes. The action scenes are well-orchestrated and don't skimp on the blood or mayhem, but also don't fetishize them so much that audience members can convince themselves that they're watching for the story. It has the kind of open ending that allows for later discussion and speculation. And Chunhyan's a hottie who knows how to handle a sword in battle but doesn't wear a whole lot of armor, if you know what I mean.

And that's where I start to have issues. In general, I've got nothing but love for the half-naked sword-slinging babe archetype, but Chunhyan makes me uneasy. She's one of the film's only important female characters, and not only is her costume design complete fanservice, characters like her are nasty indictments of nerd/otaku attitudes toward women. Sure, she can kick any monster's ass, but she does so dressed like a kinky hooker, and under the control of a man. It may not necessarily be the direct mind-control she's under at one point in the film, but the position she takes as Munsu's bodyguard is almost offensively subservient. Don't be seen. Don't speak unless spoken too. Obey orders without question.

And once that's started to bother me, everything else does: The violence starts to seem gratuitous, the outlook oppressively nihilistic. I'm reminded that I really don't like post-apocalyptic worlds, and I'm less inclined to give the lack of actual resolution a pass. It's a pity, because the basic concept and main character are strong: The empire's last soldier who can summon an expendable army on a whim, and how that makes his personality a peculiar combination of nobility and heartlessness - he often treats flesh-and-blood people with as little consideration as his phantoms, and he can be a cocky fellow even though he really isn't that great a fighter without his army.

If the movie had been one full, movie-length story, and maybe broadened its characters a bit, I'd be a lot more likely to recommend it. It's noteworthy for being the first animated collaboration between Korea and Japan, but it likely won't be the best for long.

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originally posted: 08/03/05 12:50:48
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Directed by
  Ahn Tae-geun
  Joji Shimura

Written by
  Mitsuru Hongo

  Kenji Fujiwara
  Sanae Kobayashi
  Mitsuru Miyamoto
  Romi Park

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