Phantom screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2023. This is a transcript of my on-stage introduction.
From 1910 to the end of the Second World War, Korea was under Japanese Occupation. Unsurprisingly this is a bitter period in the national memory. Land was forcibly seized; freedom of the press, and even of expression, were gradually curtailed; peaceful protests were violently quelled; there were several massacres of civilians. Under a process of Japanization that amounted to cultural genocide, Korean names, and even the Korean language, would eventually be banned – and from 1939, many Korean men were forcibly conscripted to fight in the Japanese army, while girls aged 12-17 were co-opted as sex slaves, known euphemistically as comfort women. Oppressed Koreans had either to submit to, or even to collaborate with, their Japanese rulers. There was also a Korean independence movement, but the Japanese cracked down hard on rebels, who would often have to operate in exile from China or Russia. The Occupation ended in 1945, but tensions have remained ever since over Japan’s continuing refusal to acknowledge in full its conduct and deeds during that period.
Like Lee Hae-young’s previous feature The Silenced (2015), Phantom is set during this difficult period. In 1933, after a failed assassination attempt on the incoming Japanese Governor-General, the ruthless Chief Guard Takahara Kaito (Park Hae-soo) deduces that there must be a mole, or ‘phantom’, burrowed deep inside the Japanese administration and feeding crucial intelligence to the secretive resistance group known as the Shadow Corps. So he rounds up a quintet of suspects – ambitious ex-policeman Murayama (Sol Kyung-gu), intelligence officers Park Cha-kyung (Lee Ha-nee) and Baek-ho (Kim Dong-hee), cat-loving cryptographer Cheon Eun-ho (Seo Hyun-woo), and the Deputy General’s entitled secretary/paramour Yuriko (Park So-dam). These five, all Korean or half-Korean, are taken to a remote, luxuriously appointed hotel that has been commandeered for this purpose, and are given a day either to pinpoint which of them is the ‘phantom’, or to face torture. Even though we in fact know from the outset who the phantom is, nothing will turn out to be quite as simple as it seems.
With its hyper-glamorous sets and costumes, its noirish smoke and mirrors, its espionage and double agency, and its kickass action, Phantom foregrounds its own cinematic qualities. Here everyone is playing a part and masking a secret, and as though to underline all the stylised artifice, key sequences will take place in an actual cinema, where the romance and intrigue unfolding onscreen in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) serves to reflect and project what is going on in the auditorium. Much as this elegant picture house is a place where ciphers are exchanged, decrypted and secretly displayed, Lee’s film too comes heavily coded with familiar motifs and tropes that are recombined to deliver new messages. For here we can recognise all at once the Sapphic duplicity of Park Chan-wook’s similarly Occupation-set The Handmaiden (2016), the narrative trickery of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), and even the murder mystery of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019).
Make no mistake, Phantom is a blast, with never a dull moment – but it is also a ‘movie movie’, built from the very grain and texture of cinema rather than from reality. While the Occupation itself is a historical datum, there was no incoming Japanese Governor-General in 1933, and Kazushige Ugaki, who held the post from 1931 to 1936, suffered no attempts on his life, and would indeed live to see the poist-war Occupation of his own country by the Americans. Indeed all the characters and events depicted here, not to mention the Shadow Corps and their Phantoms, are a fiction. Which is to say that this film is akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), taking a bleak period of history and layering over it the kind of idealising wish fulfilment that only cinema can deliver. Here characters, literally inspired in their actions by movie posters, can realise their picturesque fantasies of rebellion, in contradiction to what we know actually happened. It is as though it is reality itself that this plucky band are so heroically resisting.
Ultimately this is a borrowed narrative of resistance. For much as Lee’s earlier film Believer (2018) was a relocated reimagining of Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012), Phantom is also an adaptation of a Chinese source, Mai Jia’s 2007 novel The Message. The novel is set in 1941, and while it describes an attempt by Japan’s puppet government in Hangzhou to flush out a Communist mole, it is often recognised as secretly allegorising the later horrors of communist rule under the Cultural Revolution. Similarly Phantom might seem an unabashed work of anti-Japanese nationalism, and indeed near its end we see one of its heroic femmes fatales framed by a poster for Kim Hyeong-hwang’s similarly female-led The Story of Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon, which, released in 1924, was the first ever film made with an all-Korean cast and crew, and funded entirely from Korean capital – in other words, a movie milestone of Korean independence and sovereignty, even if it was made during the Occupation. Yet for all the straightforward nationalism that it appears to be peddling, Phantom also encodes the conditions of Korea’s later, entirely homegrown military dictatorships, where brutal repression and torture were once again the order of the day under an authoritarian regime. After all, there will always be oppression, and there will always be pockets of resistance, which is what makes narratives like these so archetypal, so universally appealing, and so apt for any age.
Programme note: In 1933, after an attempted assassination of the incoming Japanese Governor-General of Gyeongseung (now Seoul), his ruthless Chief Guard Takahara Kaito (Park Hae-soo) takes the five chief suspects – all Koreans or half-Koreans – to a remote clifftop hotel to flush out the infiltrator.
Ex-police officer Murayama (Sol Kyung-gu), intelligence officers Park Cha-kyung (Lee Ha-nee), Cheon Eun-ho (Seo Hyun-woo) and Baek-ho (Kim Dong-hee), and the Deputy General’s over-entitled secretary Yuriko (Park So-dam) race to unmask or conceal the ‘Phantom’ among them, in an alluring combination of film noir, murder mystery and resistance action/adventure.
Inspired by Mai Jia’s novel The Message, and set, like writer/director Lee Hae-young’s previous The Silenced (2015), during the Japanese Occupation, this blends the twisty thrills of The Handmaiden (2016) with the double-dealing deceptions of Knives Out (2019) – while paying open homage to Shanghai Express (1932), released a year before this takes place.
strap: Lee Hae-young’s elegant Occupation-era thriller offers an alluring combination of film noir, whodunnit and resistance action/adventure.
© Anton Bitel