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Phantom Detective
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by Jay Seaver

"Sin City, South Korea."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The first impression that Jo Sung-hee's "Phantom Detective" creates is that pulp is kind of the same the world over; the film may be based upon a series of Korean novels, but the look and though-guy attitude isn't far off from "Sin City", which was itself an attempt to distill the American pulp tradition to is essence. And yet, as it goes on, it becomes undeniably South Korean, and the way that it reflects that place's fears and bravado makes a frequently clumsy movie intriguing even when it's at its most absurd.

It is October 1983, and Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon) is the top operative of the HDB Agency, a private concern that specializes in smashing human trafficking rings, something he's been raised to do since childhood. His only memories from before that are his mother being murdered and the face of her killer, and now he thinks he's finally talked the former down in the person of Kim Byung-duk (Park Geun-hyung). The trouble is, someone else has too, looking for his secret ledger of the "GU Group", and when Hong arrives at Kim's place, all he fonds are granddaughters Mal-soon (Kim Ha-na) and Dong-yi (Roh Jeong-eui) , and it is a bit unusual to allow ten- and six-year-old kids to tag along on your mission of vengeance.

For a guy with little memory, Hong Gil-dong narrates an awful lot, and that is something that can wear on a viewer pretty quickly, especially early on when he's not learning things particularly quickly. The same goes for the strongly-stylized look which seems like it belongs a few decades before the 1980s setting, at least where the costumes are concerned, and often veers into characters being superhuman brawlers with little notice; the first time villain Kang Sung-il (Kim Sung-kyun) did something like punching through a wall raises an eyebrow because, because for as much as it's clear from the start that Jo is going for something heightened, the film does take a while finding its level.

(For what it's worth, the period/style isn't intrinsic to the character; Hong Gil-dong was created centuries ago, though he's often been put in a different period, and this film appears to be playing on how the character is so well-known that the name is the South Korean equivalent of "John Doe".)

Despite that, the film does start to click once it teams Hong and the kids. It's a fun pairing in a lot of ways, from how it starts out by having the guy set up as the hero lying to small children to how the girls, while looking askance at the weird grown-up who shows up at the same time their grandfather got kidnapped, basically want to be helpful. Jo balances this a lot better than might otherwise happen - with Hong Gil-dong established as a canny super-detective, there's not a whole lot of distance between the kids looking clever and him seeming dumb - especially since it takes a lot of twisting and turning to temporarily sideline the kids so that they're not constantly being put in danger to the point where the film feels unpleasant or the final confrontation is less perilous.

They're an entertaining group. Lee Je-hoon may have a bit of rust in his first project after his military service, but he's also diving into a fairly exaggerated character, and once things settle down a bit, he does all right, even if Hong's frequent smugness (which never reallly gets toned down) is kind of tough to take from a protagonist. On the other hand, Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na are delightful, making Dong-yi and Mal-soon terrifically real kids who are never too precious, smart enough to confront Hong but never seeming like little adults. Kim Sung-kyun may kind of be hitting one note hard as Kang - he is the villain and make no mistake - but he hits it well. Go Ara seems underused as Hong's benefactor/partner - like they'd have to use her more if there were sequels or if this were the pilot for a TV series - but the film does get a lot of entertaining work out of Jung Sung-hwa, Hwang Bo-ra, and Yoo Seung-mok (among others) as the townspeople who get mixed up in Hong's quest and Kang's plan. And though he spends a lot of time off-screen, Park Geun-hyung is excellent when Kim Byeong-duk does show up, spending much of the movie making the audience believe that this guy is potentially both the killer and the loving grandfather, and could be anything even very late in the game.

It's a fun game, for the most part. The story could use a little streamlining as it sends Hong running around accomplishing little for a while, and it goes way the heck over the top during the finale - as much as the action and danger that there's been over the course of the movie escalates, it wouldn't be that surprising to see someone set off a small nuke. It wouldn't be that surprising in terms of the story, either - Jo's story takes what is normally the grandiose schemes of a secret society and plays upon how plausible they might have been in 1980s Korea, arguably the most precariously balanced spot in the world during the Cold War, at a time when it often truly seemed like a personal grudge could lead to an apocalyptic end.

The film is all-around strange at times - though a strong story and this sort of stylish execution don't always go together, it's got a very solid core and an extremely polished exterior. There's a lot of material in between those two, on the other hand, which doesn't exactly seem well-thought-out. By the time it finishes, "Phantom Detective" is a neat pulp adventure, but it's sometimes a struggle getting there.

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originally posted: 08/05/16 13:16:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sung-hee Jo

Written by
  Sung-hee Jo

  Je-hoon Lee
  Sung-kyun Kim
  Ara Go
  Jeong-Eui Roh

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