Comic books and film noir are, in many ways, a match made in heaven. Tough guys lurking in the shadows, larger than life villains and an ever present sense of the strangeness of criminality, lend themselves particularly well to the extremes of both genres which is why the combination is not exactly an uncommon one. In The Phantom Detective, director Jo Sung-hee adds an extra layer of meta textuality in naming the amnesiac hero Hong Gil-dong which is both the Korean “John Doe” and the name of a legendary Robin Hood figure from the 16th century. Like his namesake, this Hong Gil-dong is a preternaturally gifted detective with a faultless memory and an almost supernatural ability to stay ahead of the game, but he’s also a classic film noir hero with a damaged past and hollow heart…
In an alternate 1980s Korea, Hong Gil-dong is an ace detective about to break a trafficking ring, which is righteous enough, but he also has another motive - these men may be able to offer him a clue to tracking down a target he’s been chasing for over 20 years. A one eyed man, Kim Byung-duk, contributed to Gil-dong’s origin story by murdering his mother right in front of him. At least, he thinks so - Gil-dong can’t remember anything about that day save for the visions he sees in his nightmares. In fact, he doesn’t even know his real name or who he really is.
When he finally gets to Byung-duk’s location, Gil-dong discovers he’s already been kidnapped by someone else leaving his two young granddaughters, Dong-yi and Mal-soon, all alone. Taking off with the kids in tow, Gil-dong vows to track down “grandpa” but still has revenge in his heart. As the investigation progresses Gil-dong finds himself getting involved with the strange residents of a tiny town who may be about to fall victim to a dastardly doomsday plan engineered by a shady cult leader…
Ever since his mother’s death, Gil-dong has been unable to sleep thanks to constant nightmares and has lost the capacity for fear and empathy (qualities which serve him well in his line of work). Fiendishly clever, Gil-dong also has a sweet tooth and a sarcastic personality but despite his protestations, usually does the just thing when comes down to a straight choice. Byung-duk’s adorable granddaughters pose something of a problem for him as he begins to warm to their straightforward earnestness, yet his revenge rests in killing their beloved grandfather to avenge his mother’s death. The kids quickly take to Gil-dong, for some reason believing in his essential goodness. Dong-yi follows him around like a deputy detective, meticulously noting everything down in her notebook, whereas Mal-soon has figured out Gil-dong’s talent for deception but hilariously almost blows the gang’s cover on several occasions through her total lack of investigatory acumen.
Through investigating his lead on Byung-duk, Gil-dong hopes to recover his own memories of his early life and the mother he only remembers in his nightmares. The path he finds himself on is a dark one leading straight towards a powerful cult populated by fascism fetish sociopaths. Sure that the “New World is Coming”, the cult have planned a large scale event which threatens the lives of most of the residents of a small, strange town. Now Gil-dong has several reasons to get to the bottom of this long standing mystery ranging from his own desire for answers and revenge, to saving the lives of these ordinary people and making sure no one else comes under threat.
Taking inspiration from the comic book world, The Phantom Detective makes use of highly saturated color schemes and deliberately artificial looking backgrounds. Though the approach remains bright and colourful for much of the film which adds to its slightly surreal atmosphere, there’s still ample room for film noir with faces cast in shadow, light striking glasses so as to eerily block out the eyes, and Gil-dong’s classic detective outfit and occasional weary voiceover. The pulpy plot doesn’t worry too much about internal consistency, but blusters along well enough on its own even if coasting on Gli-dong’s wisecracking tough guy antics as he unexpectedly bonds with the two plucky little girls temporarily in his care. Cute and funny but also filled with innovative action sequences, The Phantom Detective acts as a worthy secondary origin story for its titular hero whose return will be eagerly awaited!
The Phantom Detective screens as part of the 2016 London Korean Film Festival at Odeon Camden on 13th November at 3.50pm