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Vanished, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The Lady Vanishes... from the morgue!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Vanished" almost seems too simple, with all the conclusions to be drawn from the available evidence made quickly, and most of the time used to hopefully shake some new information loose. The trick is seeing how long the filmmakers can tease that out, since it would seem everything will fall together as soon as the last puzzle piece shows up. That director Lee Chang-hee keeps it a great deal of fun until the credits roll is a pretty good job of juggling and knowing when to pay off and play against expectations.

Or that he's got a good template to work from. It's been long enough since I've seen The Body - the Spanish film he and his crew remade - that I can't rightly recall exactly how closely the plots match, but it's worth noting that if you dig around for that review on this site, you'll find words awful close to that paragraph, which I scribbled down as my first impression immediately after the festival screening only half-conscious that I'd seen the original. It's a fun coincidence, indicating that Lee and his team certainly knew what worked, but I suppose it also puts the lie to one of my usual complaints about this sort of thriller, that most people aren't predictable enough for intricate plans dependent upon others' reactions to work.

It opens at 8:10 in the evening at the South Korean National Forensic Service's headquarters, which is a creepy enough place to be patrolling as a guard even before the power goes out. When it's back on, one of the cabinets in the morgue is open and the body of Yoon Seol-hee (Kim Hee-ae), a pharma company heiress, has disappeared - and if you believe a freaked-out guard, gone on a little walk. The detective dispatched, Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-kyung), is a mess, but one doesn't necessarily send the top man to what looks like a distasteful prank. Seol-hee's husband Park Jin-han (Kim Kang-woo) is informed - the poor grieving professor has gone straight from the funeral to the apartment of student and mistress Hye-jin (Han Ji-an) - and doesn't like Joong-sik's theory that maybe Park didn't want a coroner to discover she didn't die of natural causes. Throw in a theory that Seol-hee was cataleptic rather than dead, a mysterious document in the hands of her lawyer sister, some more blackouts, and a boss who was ready to suspend Joong-sik anyway (he is a loose cannon), and it's going to be a long night.

Even if one hasn't sort of seen this film before, it's still all but certain to wind up in an paradoxical spot where the story seems ingenious but the way it plays out is kind of predictable: Once the situation is lain out, there are certain paths that need following even if the likelihood of them paying off is low, because you can't solve the mystery without doing so. Lee, for the most part, opts to barrel through this, having Joong-sik and his team seize upon these threads and start pulling right away, doing what they can to make the execution of it entertaining from running around a building that give the impression of being all cool silvery metal but not exactly well-founded to having almost everybody frustrated with everyone else (though there is some camaraderie among every detective who has to follow Joong-sik's lead). Lee knows that this sort of mystery and/or horror story is going to see either dumb or too simple if he allows the audience to rest for very long, so he keeps things in constant motion.

It works, in large part because there's a game cast. Kim Sang-kyung is especially entertaining as the messy but brilliant detective - as soon as he starts noticing details, the audience smiles, because this is going to be fun. Having seen this character a few times does not make him any less a favorite, and Kim may not necessarily be subtle in how he differentiates the moments when Joong-sik is a legitimate trainwreck and when he's acting dumb to blindside a suspect, but it works on-screen, and he's not bad at adding an extra layer to that when people might seem to be onto his game. It's the sort of detective that's big enough to overshadow the rest of the team - if this were a TV show, there might be feature episodes and subplots for the ensemble around him, but there's no room here - but he's got a good exasperated captain in Kwon Hae-hyo.

He's matched by antagonists who dive just as readily into their roles. There's lots of pure, undiluted slime on Jin-han and Kim Kang-woo doesn't back away from it all, and while cop and suspect shouting at each other in a makeshift interrogation room can get old at times, it winds up a delightfully straightforward way to play off the expectations of caginess. Han Ji-an winds up sort of at the edge of femme-fatale as a result, with Lee having her dispense with wide-eyed innocence even if she is technically kind of a passive homewrecker. Most of Kim Hee-ae's work as Seol-hee is obviously going to be done in flashback, but maybe not; she pulls off just the sort of now-inconvenient wife who either provides a motive for murder or is the half-step more diabolical that would let her use some drug her company manufactures to simulate death to frame her cheating husband.

Lee shakes all that up for the final act, and that's often where this sort of thriller stumbles by putting everyone left in a new environment and inverting the story with twists that can cancel out momentum even if a bunch is happening. There's some of that happening here, but Lee has made sure that the film is flexible enough to accommodate it and doesn't stretch a mismatched finale out to the point where what the audience came for gets left behind - it's actually a pretty good homestretch that takes just enough time to pay off. Like the rest of the film, it may be a little flashback-heavy, but that's better than not having things connect well enough.

Admittedly, "The Vanished" was going to feel like it was all flashback for me, but that's a hazard with a lot of genre material anyway - thrillers that play reasonably fair fit into patterns even when looking to surprise. This one does it better than most, and the filmmakers at least know to have fun while doing it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32466&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/08/18 09:55:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Chang-hee Lee

Written by
  Chang-hee Lee

  Sang-kyung Kim
  Kang-woo Kim
  Hee-ae Kim
  Ji-an Han
  Ji-hoon Lee

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