When an affluent woman’s corpse disappears from the morgue, a dogged detective and her guilt-stricken widower begin an all-night game of “howdunit” in Lee Chang-hee’s The Vanished. Based on Oriol Paulo’s 2012 Spanish thriller The Body, The Vanished treads familiar ground, but does so with enough style and unchallenging diversionary power to engage for its full, blessedly compact, running time. Only those who’ve never seen a mystery thriller before will be surprised by the film’s third-act twists, but first-time filmmaker Lee handles the hoary material gracefully, and with just enough creativity — he gets help from cinematographer Lee Jong-Youl’s chamber-clinical images — to raise the material.The Vanished performed well when it opened at home in South Korea, admittedly in a bit of a March dead zone, nonetheless besting Tomb Raider. It’s polished enough and just clever enough to gain some traction in Asia-Pacific, and it could find a life in key urban markets overseas and with genre festivals. Its scope and intimate tone are also nearly ideal for an easy night at home, making streaming and VOD a viable option.
The film begins on the proverbial dark and stormy night, when a watchman on the late shift at Korea’s National Forensics Laboratory discovers a body has up and, well, vanished from the morgue — after chasing him around for a bit. The police sent to investigate the matter are led by Detective Woo Joong-sik (Kim Sang-Kyung), also knows as Detective Maverick With a Haunted Past. The missing body is that of Yoon-seol (Kim Hee-Ae), a powerful, wealthy businesswoman who died of a heart attack. Woo’s attention is immediately piqued by the woman’s widower, the much younger, handsome, vaguely anxious Jin-han (Kim Kang-Woo). It seems Jin-han, a biomed researcher whose work the domineering Yoon-seol never took seriously, was a trophy husband: Call him Boy Toy. Surprising absolutely no one, Jin-han also has a pregnant girlfriend on the side, Hye-jin (Han Ji-An), whose mere existence makes Woo even more suspicious.
A serviceable thriller best appreciated by those who missed the original.
Unfolding over the course of one night, predominantly in one location, The Vanished channels the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, a little Therese Raquin and a dash of Euro noir, and cleaves closely to the source material for its plot beats. As the story progresses and it becomes clearer and clearer that Yoon-seol caused Yoon-seol’s disappearance (or did she?), that Jin-han is being gaslighted and Hye-jin is just too sweet to be true, personal taste and/or tolerance for contrivance become the drivers for whether or not the film succeeds in its goals.
Lee flirts with two-hander tension and chamber-piece claustrophobia effectively enough to make the twists feel inevitable; something’s got to give and as both men’s lingering resentments, latent guilt, rage and desperation finally surface it’s an organic evolution within the narrative. The detective and Boy Toy Kims do decent jobs in their cat and mouse roles, though the impeccably imperious Kim Hee-Ae deserved more screen time (maybe her own movie, Time’s Up after all) as Yoon-seol, a woman clearly torn between her affection for her husband and her position as a captain of industry. The veteran actress (Thread of Lies) says more with the swish of a wine glass than either of her co-stars do with multiple monologues. Tech specs are, as expected, nearly flawless.
Production company: Sidus Corporation
Cast: Kim Sang-Kyung, Kim Kang-Woo, Kim Hee-Ae, Han Ji-An, Lee Ji-Hoon, Seo Hyun-Woo, Lee Min-Ji, Kwon Hae-Hyo
Director: Lee Chang-Hee
Screenwriter: Lee Hi-Chan, Lee Chang-Hee
Producer: Rhee Han-Dae
Executive producer: Kim Young-Hoon
Director of photography: Lee Jong-Youl
Production designer: Hwang In-Jun, Bae Joon-Soo
Costume designer: Kim You-Sun
Editor: Kim Woo-Il
Music: Park Weil
World sales: Contents Panda