JOE JACKSON examines Jo Sung-hee’s re-imagination of a Korean folklore, blurring previous distinctions between good and evil.
Hong Gil-dong has become a staple character within South Korean folklore, stealing from the corrupt rich in the same vein as Robin Hood or Ned Kelly. In Phantom Detective, director Jo Sung-hee reimagines the Korean legend as a poker-faced, neo-noir vigilante who tricks his way through precarious situations, with an unmatched ability to track down any target within a single hour. Jo expertly collages the crime-solving nous of Sherlock Holmes, the wealth and intelligence of Artemis Fowl, the unflappability and steely-resolve of the literary James Bond and, controversially, the same level of manipulation and callousness as Shakespeare’s Richard III.
In the film’s opening scene, panting voices and an ominous countdown emanate from Gil-dong’s walkie-talkie. In the midst of a shootout, he calmly sits at the table chewing a sugar cube; he claims to have his enemies’ loved ones at gunpoint, though characteristically he is bluffing. ‘I lie with every breath I draw,’ smirks Gil-dong, having hoodwinked his assailants, forcing them to hack off each other’s fingers as they lie defeated on the floor. This is a practical torture method to procure information, but also a sadistic punishment for wasting the Phantom Detective’s valuable time. Later on, we see Mal-soon, the preschool granddaughter of Gil-dong’s target, being manipulated into tracking down her grandfather, only for the lawless crime-solver to attempt to kill him. She desperately wails ‘Do you ever tell the truth?’ in frustration at Gil-dong’s callous lies, much to his chagrin.
Gil-dong’s most unnerving trait is his lack of empathy; one critic even goes so far as to suggest that this heartlessness becomes a ‘black hole’, threatening to suck ‘the life out of the movie.’ Gil-dong exhibits the same pathological disregard for human beings as the most maniacal of Shakespearean villains; like in Shakespeare, it pays to investigate the roots of characters’ pathologies. Richard III, born so hideous and deformed that dogs bark and lovers recoil in his presence, bemoans having: ‘No delight to pass away the time/ Unless to spy my shadow in the sun/ And descant on mine own deformity.’ Although this can be interpreted as a sarcastic jibe at the expense of his mutilated appearance, Richard III’s predilection for the sun’s effect upon his shadow appears again when, after killing her husband, he woos Lady Anne through the sheer power of his noxious rhetoric: ‘Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,/ That I may see my shadow as I pass’. Far from remorseful, he bathes in corruption as he crawls off stage, enjoying every second of his trickery and misbehaviour.
The audience are as easily drawn into Richard III’s game of treachery as Lady Anne. The Duke of Gloucester’s malice, which he claims is rooted in disdain for his own physical appearance, is in fact borne from narcissism and self-love. His deformities, both physically and characteristically, motivate his lies and feed his pathology.
This is the crucial difference between Gil-dong, the anti-hero who becomes heroic, and Richard III, the anti-hero who delves into the darkest depths of villainy. The phantom detective is not motivated by his egocentricity, but his love for another. His pursuits, passions, stimulant-addiction, rescue missions, murders, and his barbarity entwined with bravery are all rooted in the psychological repercussions of his mother’s untimely death; it induces a relentless, Oedipal fixation on revenge that stretches morality to the point of no return.
Phantom Detective paints a perplexing character that fascinates, repulses and deceives. Are we manipulated by this modernised version of Richard III? Do we ourselves become victim to his skullduggery? Or, can a nugget of integrity truly reside in a character whose neo-noir universe blurs the distinctions between truth and conspiracy, honor and dishonor, good and evil?
‘Phantom Detective’ is part of the London Korean Film Festival, running from 3rd to 27th November. More information and the 2016 film programme can be found here.