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NYAFF: Phantom, Combative Heroines Lead The Way In This Work Of New Korean Cinema

Another impressive Korean film, that is part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival, is Phantom directed by Lee Hae-young. 

The spy action movie based on Mai Jia’s 2007 novel, Feng Sheng (The Messenger), is set in 1933, when Korea was still under the Japanese occupation. It all begins with a  failed attempt to assassinate the new Japanese resident-general on his first day in Kyungsung (present day Seoul). Eventually, the narrative is driven by a compelling investigation that pays homage to the classic whodunit genre, as five individuals are suspected of being the mysterious anti-Japanese secret agent “Phantom.”

These people are gathered and interrogated in a remote and sumptuous hotel on a seaside cliff. While the suspects are under surveillance and close scrutiny of the Japanese authorities, they snoop around in each others rooms to discover the identity of the “Phantom.”

Takahara Kaito (Park Hae-soo) is the captain who directs the investigation, whilst the five prisoners who drive the action are Junji Murayama (Sol Kyung-gu), a Japanese policeman suspected because his mother is Korean; Park Cha-kyung (Lee Hanee), an employee of the communication department who records cryptograms; Baek-ho (Kim Dong-hee), a young employee who works in the communication department with Park Cha-kyung; Cheon Gye-jang (Park Hae-soo), a shy character with sharp deciphering skills as a code cracker; Yuriko (Park So-dam), an influential Mata Hari type of figure who works as secretary for a powerful man in the Japanese government, whose identity will turn out to be Korean (Ahn Kangok).

Director Lee Hae-young takes time to introduce us to all the characters and prepare the setting, and once it is all ready the narrative unfurls in a freewheeling manner.

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The cliff hotel, overlooking the ocean, becomes the stage of a breathtaking battle, where all players reveal their true nature with great acrobatics and intrigue.

Although Phantom begins with a Hitchcockian approach — disseminating clues and false leads to deceive the viewer on the identity of the anti-Japanese secret agent — it progressively derails into a kaleidoscope of mind-blowing events. The investigation of ruthless Japanese officer Takahara turns out to be a mere plot device, since it is easy to figure out who the “Phantom” is. But the denouement continues with the revealed “Phantom” trying to avoid being discovered, as the film mutates form and gradually transforms into a highly choreographed K-pop muscular action film. Yet the complexity of each character remains, since Hae-young has taken time to introduce us each individual. The Cluedo structure soon gives into the Risk scheme, as the strategies of the conflict become clearer the fight continues relentlessly until the mission is accomplished.

Ju Sung-lim’s photography and Kim Bo-mook’s art direction plunge audiences in the noir atmosphere, that inevitably evokes the one that has become legendary in American filmmaking.

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Women in raincoats, with coiled hair, sensually smoke cigarettes and move in slow motion under the rain.

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The effect is even more enhanced as the 1932 film, starring Marlene Dietrich, is inserted in the storyline: while Shanghai Express is playing in an old illegal cinema exchanged coded messages pass from hand to hand. If Josef von Sternberg portrayed a group of train passengers held hostage by a warlord during the Chinese Civil War, Lee Hae-young newly proposes a similar plot instilling his own personal touch.

However, the Asian film is very much in line with the current era of female empowerment and with its country of origin. Phantom, as part of the wave of new Korean cinema, focuses on powerful women. In fact, the female characters are the ones who steal the show, including the fleeting appearance of Cha-kyung’s lover, Yoon Nan-young (Esom). Lee Hae-young latest work displays an array of female fighters who are brave, support each other far from the clichéd female rivalries and can truly kick ass!

Final Grade: B

Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Chiara Spagnoli Gabardihttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Works as film critic and journalist who covers stories about culture and sustainability. With a degree in Political Sciences, a Master’s in Screenwriting & Film Production, and studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, Chiara has been working in the press since 2003. Italian by blood, British by upbringing, fond of Japanese culture since the age of 7, once a New Yorker always a New Yorker, and an avid traveller, Chiara collaborates with international magazines and radio-television networks. She is also a visual artist, whose eco-works connect to her use of language: the title of each painting is inspired by the materials she upcycles on canvas. Her ‘Material Puns’ have so far been exhibited in four continents, across ten countries. She is a dedicated ARTivist, donating her works to the causes and humanitarians she supports, and is Professor of Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts at Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan.

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