Submarine films don’t come often : the last significant one was David Twohy’s superb BELOW in 2003 (and, the same year, Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated K-19 THE WIDOWMAKER). Asian submarine films are even more scarce. In fact, I can’t think of one on the top of my head. PHANTOM : THE SUBMARINE (Yuryeong) thus has some measure of novelty to it. Directed by Min Byung-Chun and written by the great Bong Joon-Ho (of THE HOST and MEMORIES OF MURDER fame), it stars Jun Woo-Sung and Choi Min-Soo. The plot is kind of a cross between THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and CRIMSON TIDE : a nuclear submarine commander (Choi Min-Soo) decides to go rogue and threatens to bomb a nearby country (here Japan), like Sean Connery in Red October. But not everyone agrees with him aboard the ship, which leads to a face-off between the commander and one of the officers (Jun Woo-Sung), like Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide. But Phantom : The Submarine has a tone all of its own, sometimes verging on the supernatural. The submarine in the film is called Phantom for one good reason : it’s not supposed to exist, and everybody in its crew is supposed to be dead. For instance Jun Woo-Sung’s character was supposed to be executed, but instead got assigned to the submarine as a weapons officer, under the number (names and personal items are forbidden) 431. So it’s basically the contemporary, realistic equivalent of a ghost ship.
One big problem is Min Byung-Chun’s directing, which tends to border on the epileptic whenever things get tense, adding unnecessary visual confusion to a fairly linear narrative. But at the heart of the film is a potent metaphor of South Korea’s geopolitical status. The submarine is here a symbol for South Korea’s frustration at not being taken seriously (to simplify things). There may or may not be nuclear warheads aboard the ship, and in a way, the suspense created by this uncertainty strikingly epitomizes the ambivalent status of South Korea as both a force to be reckoned with (the world’s 12th largest economy) and a comparatively denfenseless country as far as its army and weaponry goes. Choi Min-Soo really shines as the rogue submarine commander with such a strong sense of purpose he can unflinchingly gut a man to retrieve from his stomach a key he has swallowed. He plays his character not so much as a bad guy than a man ready to do unspeakable things for what he perceives to be the greater good. And when he takes down several Japanese submarines in a few thrilling scenes of underwater warfare, you’re not so sure whom to root for. His face-off with Jun Woo-Sung as the voice of reason trying to stop him from bombing Okinawa is intense, and one of the reasons PHANTOM : THE SUBMARINE isn’t far behind the classic submarine films it draws inspiration from.
Long Story Short : A clever and intense submarine film marred only by some occasional epileptic directing and a slightly derivative nature. ***