Movie review of “Phantom Detective”: Lee Je-Hoon stars as an untraceable private eye in this revenge drama that becomes a moral conundrum when two little girls attach themselves to the violent anti-hero. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Anytime he reaches for his hat, you know fireworks are about to begin.
That’s the kind of anti-hero Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon), a character rooted in 16th-century Korean folklore, is in the enthralling “Phantom Detective.” The South Korean suspense drama is both ideal popcorn movie and morally complex revenge tale.
The modern-day Hong telegraphs what he’s about to do and then does it — making himself into a cookie-cutter action figure, which reflects his lack of soul.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Phantom Detective,’ with Lee Je-hoon, Park Geun-hyung, Roh Jeong-eui, Kim Ha-na, Kim Sung-kyun. Written and directed by Jo Sung-hee. 125 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Korean, with English subtitles. Alderwood Mall 16.
In this visually dazzling and spooky thriller, Hong’s redemption is at hand.
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A private eye who works for an outfit that more resembles Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. than a noirish firm of sleuths, Hong is a “ghost” who can’t be tracked through official records. In fact, he knows little about his own past except for shadowy memories of his mother’s murder at the hands of a man named Kim.
That hollowness makes Hong well-suited to deal mercilessly with killers and human traffickers. An early scene reveals his smug pleasure in sadistic violence toward his prey.
But Hong is largely driven by a desire to find Kim and kill him. When he locates his nemesis’ broken-down shack on a lonely rural road, he finds the old man’s very young granddaughters (Roh Jeong-eui and Kim Ha-na) alone. Kim (Park Geun-hyung) has just been kidnapped.
An ensuing search leads Hong to a monstrous conspiracy, a supervillain (Kim Sung-kyun) and into the mystery of his own past. But this story is really about a sometimes comic obstacle: Those granddaughters attach themselves to lone-wolf Hong. How can he kill Kim with them in tow?
Writer-director Jo Sung-hee subtly evokes American Westerns and “X-Files”-like weirdness while dreaming up such pulse-quickening set pieces as a shootout in a fog-filled room. Finally, though — as fun as all of this is — “Phantom Detective” is, movingly, about a ghost glimpsing his humanity.