The Phantom Unmasks the Fantasia Film Festival Strengths

I had no intention of seeing Phantom last night. I was on my way to another film at Montreal’s beloved Fantasia Film Festival when I noticed a large crowd snaking out of the doors of the festival’s headquarters and around a corner. Some people had clearly been waiting a while — they had smart collapsible chairs. Many wore John Carpenter shirts, so I knew I could trust their taste.

What’s playing? I asked someone. He took a moment to translate me in his head — it turns out he spoke French, like so many people in Montreal — and answered back, with a lovely, smoky accent: Phan-tome.

I had never heard of Phantom. I searched the festival guide and learned that it is a story set during the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1993, about five prime Korean suspects who are locked inside a remote, cliffside hotel after a failed assassination attempt on a Japanese Governor General. They are grilled by an interrogator trying to unmask whoever among them is the freedom-fighter spy known as The Phantom.

I decided to trust the wisdom of the crowd. And the crowd was right.

Fantasia and Phantom

Fantasia is one of the premier genre festivals in the world, and perhaps the best of all. It consistently turns up on MovieMaker‘s annual list of 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee, which we use to advice filmmakers of which festivals are worth submitting to.

One of Fantasia’s greatest strengths is its location — Montreal is sublime, and Concordia University provides many top-notch facilities and beautiful screening venues, including in the coliseum-like Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU, where Phantom played

Another massive strength is its programming team. These were the first folks to discover Skinamarink, a $10,000-budgeted experimental film that went on to earn $2 million and become the year’s first horror phenomenon. Every year, they turn me on to a daring movie I love. This year those movies include John Rosman’s gorgeously constructed New Life, which will debut next week; as well as Lovely, Dark, and Deep, a magnificent park ranger mystery-horror film by Teresa Sutherland led by Barbarian star Georgina Campbell. I was also very impressed by Where the Devil Roams, a film by the Adams family that finds terror against a ghastly Great Depression backdrop.

But Phantom may be the most Fantasia film of all, because it so perfectly highlights Fantasia’s greatest strength: irrepressible, passionate, very sharp audiences. How many festivals can draw a packed house on a weeknight to what could be described as a South Korean period drama? The list is not long.

Fantasia is known for its excellent curation of Asian genre cinema, and the audience clearly trusted the programmers’ judgment. Phantom has a pedigree fans of South Korean film will surely recognize, even if the average viewer won’t: Directed by Lee Hae-young, best known for Believer, it stars Sul Kyung-gu (Idol), Lee Hanee (Extreme Job), Park So-dam (Parasite), Park Hae-soo (Squid Game) and Seo Hyun-woo (Decision to Leave).

Arguably the best known of those performers, to the typical Western film fan, is Park So-dam, who played the clever younger sister in Parasite, the 2020 winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. And Park Hae-soo earned an Emmy nomination for Squid Game, a Netflix smash in South Korea and the U.S.

But to be honest, I didn’t remember either of them at first. And that was fine. Because the Fantasia audience pulled me in and got me instantly invested in the screening experience with infectious, relentless joy. They even clapped along with the music in the ads before the movie.

Maybe some of that was ironic, but I’m convinced the delight for the gloriously over-the-top Nongshim noodle ad was totally sincere. I felt it. Who wouldn’t love this ad? Watch:

Nongshim also handed out free packets of noodles, which we held up in salute at one point. That was real, too.

But that isn’t the best part of the Fantasia pre-viewing experience. The best part is the meowing that comes before every film, followed by shushing, followed by even more passionate meowing. Why the meowing? There are Reddit threads, but I prefer not to understand, and to simply meow. Such is Fantasia.

But back to Phantom: It’s wonderful. A gorgeously shot, film-history obsessed, noir-homage modern masterpiece that turns into something else for its final act. The fight scenes are outstanding. It’s full of lush rain and sumptuous rooms and perfectly placed callbacks and a cat that the Fantasia programmers clearly knew would play well, as well as glamorous smoking (which the movie almost apologizes for, then doesn’t). So, so, so many people get shot in the face. Gunshots have never sounded so real, and there’s a bit with nooses that is pure cinema.

Anyone who likes Inglorious Basterds — which had its North American premiere at Fantasia — will love it. There were multiple times when I thought, “This should end now” and each time I was wrong — director Lee Hae-young had another great idea. My Googling tells me it’s been a decent-sized hit in South Korea, and I bet it would be huge in this hemisphere. Just watch this:

This is the kind of experience I go to film festivals for. I found something I love and never would have found by sticking to my carefully plotted online schedule. Trusting Fantasia and its audience they led me to the cat’s meow.

As soon as we know where you can see Phantom in theaters, we’ll let you know.

Main image: The main cast of The Phantom.