There are a number of South Korean period action films set in 1933, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule.
Although director Lee Hae-young’s upcoming period action film “Phantom” shares the same background, the film’s plot revolving around five protagonists is about action and mind games between characters hunting down a spy called Phantom.
“I did not depend too much on the historical record. Instead, I based it on information regarding a group of independence fighters who failed to assassinate the Japanese ambassador to China on March 17, 1933. I imagined what it would have been like had their trial taken place in Korea,” said director Lee during a press conference held Monday at Yongsan CGV in Seoul.
As the title suggests, “Phantom” focuses on five characters who are locked inside an isolated hotel after they are suspected of spying against the Japanese Government-General of Korea.
“The title had to be ‘Phantom,’ as the word’s succinctness can spark curiosity,” Lee told reporters.
Combined with Lee’s signature mise-en-scene technique, previously showcased in his action film “Believer” (2019), “Phantom” portrays highly distinctive characters with a charged plot.
Murayama Junji, an elite Japanese police officer played by veteran actor Sol Kyung-gu, shows both strengths and weaknesses of character when put in an extreme situation, according to Sol.
Sol said he had played a pivotal role in persuading Park Hae-soo, who appears as a merciless Japanese general named Takahara Kaito on the spyhunt, because he had to memorize a massive amount of lines in Japanese in about two weeks.
The two had appeared together in the action thriller “Yaksha: Ruthless Operations.”
“I still remember phoning Sol, as I wasn’t sure about the role,” Park said.
Park, who has appeared in the mega-hit Netflix series “Squid Game,” “Surinam” and “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” said the pressure he felt for “Phantom” was massive.
“I almost memorized my lines like a student preparing for the Suneung (the Korean College Scholastic Ability Test) or like an Olympic athlete,” said Park.
Director Lee said Park was cast last because he had agonized about giving such a role to an actor, one that could be a burden. But after meeting Park at his office, Lee was certain that Park had to play Kaito because of the actor’s "personal charm" -- a serious and sincere attitude.
For the two lead female actors, Lee Ha-nee and “Parasite” star Park So-dam, “Phantom” is a meaningful project, as they return to the public eye with its release.
Lee and Park had taken time off since filming ended in May last year -- Lee gave birth to a girl in June and Park has been recovering from thyroid cancer surgery since December last year.
Lee plays Park Cha-kyung, a cipher decoder born to an affluent family. The character is a departure from her previous roles, such as in the hit comedy film “Extreme Job” (2019) and the sci-fi action film “Alienoid” (2022).
“Park Cha-kyung is more of a calm, cool-headed person who has deep sorrow and anger insider her. She is a multidimensional character who is maybe forcibly put into a situation where she has to make sacrifices for the independence movement to follow her loved ones,” said Lee.
Park, who plays Yuriko, an ambitious, powerful secretary to a high-ranking officer at the Japanese Government-General of Korea, said it was her first time spending sufficient time with one character.
“I spent the longest time -- 5 to 6 months -- as Yuriko. During that time, director Lee supported me a lot by directing me on sensitive acting, teaching me that even an expressionless face can portray various feelings,” said Park.
Park also appeared in Lee’s 2015 film “The Silenced.”
Seo Hyun-woo said his character Cheon Eun-ho in “Phantom” shows a softer side of him.
“Cheon is a character who has a sensitive personality, as he decodes the secret codes at the communication department of the Japanese Government-General of Korea. But he is also a charming character who has blind love for his cat Hana,” said Seo.
Lee said “Phantom” is all about colorful mise-en-scenes expressed through details on the set as well as the characters’ costumes.
By combining vivid orange and pink colors with different types of fabric from fur to leather, Lee said the characters’ clothes expressed them well.
“I’m satisfied that I created a film that focuses on an ensemble of characters without losing the vividness of a mise-en-scene. Unlike ‘Believer,’ which I made with the goal of creating a stylish film, ‘Phantom’ shows how different characters can mix well with each other,” said Lee.
“Phantom” opens in local theaters on Jan. 18.