Director Lee Hae-young’s upcoming period action flick “Phantom” is set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, but patriotic or historical messages are well-hidden throughout a highly-charged plot.
Rather, it invites the audience to immerse themselves in stunt-studded action. Lee’s articulate approach to mise-en-sceneis also on show through the five protagonists' outfits in leather or velvet that match their characters.
After shortly showing the background on how anti-Japanese group members secretly working at Japanese Government-General of Korea failed to kill Mahara Kaito, the new Japanese resident-general’s security chief, the film quickly brings the setting to a remote hotel on a seaside cliff.
There, Kaito (played by Park Hae-soo) plans to hunt down the spy code-named “phantom,” within 24 hours.
The list of suspects includes Murayama Junji (Sol Kyung-gu), an elite Japanese police officer who has been relegated to a communications supervisor of the police bureau, Park Cha-kyung (Lee Ha-nee), a communications department official born to an affluent Korean family and Mr. Cheon (Suh Hyun-woo), who works as a Korean cipher decoder. Yuriko (Park So-dam) is an ambitious, powerful Korean secretary to a high-ranking officer at the Japanese Government-General of Korea.
While each character endeavors to prove their innocence, their mind games soon lead to shoot-outs and fist fights. There is no let up in the suspense as the story develops. Light goes off as a grenade explosion cuts the electricity inside the building, giving no room for devoid of suspense as the story develops.
Along with action, the director adds complexity and layers to the film, along with some unexpected twists.
Two female actors, Lee Ha-nee and Park So-dam play well-trained, powerful combatants, who can hold their own against male rivals and Japanese officials.
During a press conference held on Jan. 11, Lee told reporters that she had carried a 4 kilogram rifle with her for six months to get used to loading and shooting a gun smoothly. Such preparation pays off during a scene when she fights Sol Kyung-gu.
Director Lee, who was also behind the gripping characters and colorful mise-en-scenes in film “Believer” (2019), has used toned down, deep purple, orange and green colors in set designs, background and also for outfits of characters.
Using unique fabric textures such as leather and velvet, the overall mood of the film centers in rich colors mixed with stylish and sophisticated fashion, but veers towards grayscale as the film draws to its conclusion.
Tobacco is a running theme throughout the film, with scenes showing characters smoking or transferring tobacco as a sign of the connections between them. But it is not clear enough what the tobacco is supposed to symbolize, creating a distraction and making some of the story hard to follow.
Inspired by Chinese writer Mai Jia’s 2009 novel “The Wind,” “Phantom” opens in local theaters Wednesday.