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Review: ‘Phantom Detective,’ a Dawdling South Korean Noir

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phantom detective 2016

By Jeannette Catsoulis

  • May 19, 2016

Midway through “Phantom Detective” — a South Korean noir equally torn between slayings and sentiment — a pretty-boy detective named Hong (Lee Je-hoon) recoils from a small child’s innocent embrace.

“There’s a dark void inside of him,” a villain explains. But the problem for the director, Jo Sung-hee, is that Hong’s lack of empathy becomes a black hole that threatens to suck the life out of the movie. Invariably attired in trench coat and fedora, boy-band hair licking over the rim, Hong searches for the man who killed his mother 20 years earlier. And when his quarry, now a milky-eyed grandpa, is mysteriously spirited away moments before Hong can exact revenge, the detective is all the grumpier for being saddled with the killer’s two young granddaughters.

You’ll appreciate those kids, though, and their softening effect on a script that favors cool implacability over human warmth and staged tableaus over natural movement. Adapting a 16th-century folk tale, Mr. Jo uses clipped dialogue and comic-book stylings to unfurl a paranoid story of a shady conglomerate with far-reaching political power and tentacles snaking back to Hong’s childhood.

Our hero’s quest, however — updated to the 1980s, when the country’s corporations enjoyed unprecedented government benefits — never ignites, mostly because of Mr. Lee’s acting deficits. Like Caine in the 1970s television series “Kung Fu,” Hong walks the earth with a strange passivity, the surrealism of his surroundings sometimes arresting yet too often static. A cataclysmic event is scheduled mere days away; watching Hong dawdle to forestall it isn’t exactly a nail-biting experience.

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Phantom Detective

2016, Action/Crime, 2h 5m

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Phantom detective   photos.

A detective gets entangled in a conspiracy during an investigation.

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Original Language: Korean

Director: Sung-Hee Jo

Release Date (Streaming): Jan 3, 2019

Runtime: 2h 5m

Production Co: Bidangil Pictures, CJ Entertainment

Cast & Crew

Lee Je-hoon

Hong Gil-dong

Kim Sung-kyun

Kang Seong-il

President Hwang

Hwang Bo-ra

Park Geun-hyung

Kim Byeong-deok

Jung Sung-hwa

Roh Jeong-eui

Sung-Hee Jo

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