Having been sent on a trip for work, I’ve had a chance to watch some movies, some of which I probably would not otherwise have watched, but Phantom Detective (the Korean title is Detective Hong Gil-Dong: the Vanished Village) is something I probably would have caught on Netflix if I had seen it there.
Phantom Detective is kind of a weird movie, but I have to say that I ended up enjoying it. This is something of a neo-noir with elements of pulp and comedy, and follows the actions of a relatively unsympathetic detective named Hong Gil-Dong, which is the name of a Korean legend very similar to Robin Hood. Oddly enough, at least in translation, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this connection. Gil-Dong is on the trail of the man who killed his mother, and in this pursuit, he is ruthless, his actions often brutal. He has a character arc, and one that is telegraphed, but which takes a bit longer than I expected.
The movie is set in mid-1980s South Korea, which is an odd choice to me, but I think it is trying to reflect on that period as a liminal age, the transition period between military dictatorship and democracy, when South Korea was gaining affluence and confidence but when it was still undeveloped. There is a secret organization in the movie that maybe intended to represent conservative forces that looked fondly back at the military dictatorship as a time of stability, but which – given the present presidential scandal and the pseudo-religious nature of the fictional organization – seems prescient.
The movie’s tone is incredibly uneven, and the plot surges along mostly because it must. I was aware of these problems watching it, but this actually didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment. I really liked the way the CGI portions were emphasized, somewhat like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a movie which I also very much enjoyed. I don’t know if this was a choice or actually reflects poorly rendered CGI, but it worked for me. This may be because after Sky Captain, I associate this unreal CGI with pulp adventure on screen. I found it endearing rather than annoying.
The main character is interesting in that he’s both very competent but also vulnerable. He’s fine facing down mooks, but also gets his butt handed to him multiple times through the movie. He’s not invincible, and his determination proves both a strength and a weakness. I’m glad the character grows, because at the outset of the movie, while he’s an amusing character, he’s somewhat unsympathetic, at least for me.
I don’t think this is a great movie, but it’s pretty good. I would say that if you have the opportunity to watch it, give it a go. It’s not a movie that I would hunt down to watch again, but if it comes to Netflix, I’ll definitely be checking it out with my wife.
I give Phantom Detective 3.5 waxed paper-wrapped caramels out of 5. Its CGI is evident and its plot and arc pretty pedestrian, but it has charm, interesting ideas, and the main character is certainly engaging.