As political anxiety concerning North Korea’s alleged nuclear weapons program increases in tempo with each new report on Kim Jong-il’s supposed love for the Friday the 13th movies (a logic which seems to be: passion for horror = bad taste = evil tyrant), the thematic situations presented in Phantom become all the more interesting. It is extremely tempting to follow in the story and characterisations an allegory for the North: the connection to Russia (as Stalinist allies), the numbering of the nameless crew (loss of identity under dictatorship), the nationalistic and psychopathic behaviour of the captain’s First Officer (Kim Jong-il as deputy to his “Great Leader” father, Kim Il-sung), its oppressive militaristic emphasis, through its depiction of ownership of nuclear technology (which the South lacks) and with its ultimate message that the actions of one person cannot (or should not?) influence global policy. Watching it in this way, Phantom is like Shiri or Joint Security Area without the getting-to-know-you friendlier aspects (arguably those films best moments).
Thankfully, there are other ways to get a kick out of this flick. Phantom is a good example of how contemporary Korean cinema likes to cover and rework its generic Hollywood influences. It’s a relentless, macho, marine-mutiny thriller along the lines of The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide. Like those films, the cluttered sets, angular compositions, rapid editing and range of mechanical sound effects emphasise the psychological stress of enclosure and tension of close-quarters combat. The colour-filtered, shallow-focus cinematography in particular is very attractive (looking somewhat like a David Fincher film). The design of the obligatory underwater sub vs. sub action is at times inventive, if a little bit obscure, and fortunately doesn’t rely too much on stern-faced close-ups of Choi Min-soo holding a stopwatch and calculating torpedo vectors in his mind.
I’m not sure that Phantom‘s narrative framing device works too well (whatever it’s trying to say about unobserved moments in history, I found rather difficult to figure out), nor the flashbacks of hero Chan-suk (Jung Woo-sung) witnessing his father’s murder. The expression of the military as a nasty place to grow up around for nice guys like Chan-suk is a fairly lazy touch and it’s overwhelmed by the excess of action as the climax nears. Much better are the bonding moments between Chan-suk and the sub’s cook (Jung Eun-pyo), who has secreted a photo of his family onboard to help remember a happier past.
Financial successes like Shiri and Joint Security Area worked the problematic topic of unification to their favour in ways that hugely interested both the South Korean public and international spectators. Phantom is suggestive of a different, more global, situation, one that at this moment is revealing of the international political pressures facing the Korean peninsula. It asks and prompts hypothetical questions about modern Korea’s place in relation to Japan and the West, acknowledging that successful mediation of transnational concerns is first on the agenda if unification is to occur (e.g. destroying a Japanese sub and preemptively nuking Okinawa isn’t a very nice diplomatic gesture).
An interesting first credit worth noting is co-writer Bong Joon-ho, who has since directed a sparkling film that made no money, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and a detective-thriller, Memories of Murder, which was the commercial hit of early-2003.