The Vanished is a twisty South Korean psychological thriller, a clever amalgam of classical cinematic influences – especially Diabolique—filtered through a powerful narrative about the nature of perception and guilt. The film takes place over the course of a single night, as a police team arrive at the city morgue to investigate the disappearance of the corpse of Yoon Seol-see (Kim Hee-ae), a high-powered CEO of a pharmaceutical company, who died that day from a heart attack. The investigators, headed by the brilliant and rumpled Woo Jung-sik (Kim Sang-kyung), soon come to suspect that this more than a body snatching. They interview Yoon’s trophy husband Park Jin-han (Kim Kang-woo), a university professor, and it becomes clear that Park had more than a few reasons for wanting his wife dead and the body removed before an autopsy could be performed, among them being Park’s young mistress Hye-jin (Han Ji-an). But Park becomes convinced that his wife is still alive and tormenting him, when he begins receiving weird phone calls from her cell. Is Yoon really still alive, or is something even more sinister at work?
The Vanished is all about perception, shaping the audience’s experience of the characters and the narrative until suddenly upending them, taking us down another twist in the story. The film utilizes flashbacks from different points of view—Park’s, Woo’s, and even Yoon’s—to construct the relationships, and how the actors perceive them, without every employing a clear third-party perspective. This turns the film into a narrative maze within what initially appears to be a more straightforward psychological thriller, pushing the audience to question what is being presented and by whom. The use of contemporary technology, including cell phones, surveillance footage, and GPS systems, further enhance the emphasis on how that technology alters our perceptions of the world and of each other. The result is a thriller within a society constantly under scrutiny, where telephone conversations can be easily overheard, manipulated, and intercepted, shaping the characters’ assumptions.
The shifts in perspective mean shifting audience sympathies. Park is initially a cold, manipulative antagonist, first seen putting drops in his eyes to cry fake tears for his wife. His mistress Hye-jin appears to be just a naïve young woman enamored with her professor, encouraging him to murder his domineering wife. But nothing is quite what it seems in The Vanished, and the subtle shifts in the narrative leads up to a satisfying and surprising conclusion.
Despite the spooky subject, The Vanished has more than an edge of humor, thanks to the performance of Kim Sang-kyung as detective Woo, who makes his first appearance by knocking over a trash can with his car, then staggering through the morgue doors sucking on a juice box. Kim is best known to western audiences for his role in Joon-ho Bong’s Memories of Murder, from 2003, and here he’s another version of the character he played in that film. Rumpled and hungover, he’s also very observant, reconstructing the disappearance of the corpse carefully before he begins to suspect that Park in fact had a role in his wife’s death, and possibly in the subsequent disappearance. His investigative team include an uptight investigator, a dull but clever young woman, a fashion-obsessed sergeant who spends more time on Instagram than on paying attention to his duties, and a police doctor influenced by the supernatural.
Memories of Murder is actually a good comparison for The Vanished, both of them about perceptions of guilt and transgressions of the past that can’t be put to rest. The Vanished is not as circuitous, or as dark, as Memories—its humor is more pronounced, and aesthetic flights of fancy are kept to a minimum. There are some apparently bizarre uses of filtered light and soft focus, which should indicate to the audience to take every scene with a grain of salt, and to remember from whose perspective this comes. Lee has not quite achieved the extreme style of fellow South Korean directors Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, but he’s made an entertaining, ultimately satisfying film that plays effectively with undercurrents of manipulation and perception. The Vanished is one of those films that I want to see again, knowing the conclusion, to trace the clues and manipulations that the film utilizes to bring about (and to conceal) the ending. You may think you know how this ends, but there’s a good chance that you don’t.
The Vanished showed at Fantasia 2018 on July 18.