A Film a Week - The Vanished / Vanishing

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Denis Dercourt is by no means an A-lister in the realm of French cinema, but he nevertheless made some career, both at home and abroad in Germany, especially with his 2006 Cannes title “The Page Turner”. With last year’s “The Vanished” (somewhere already released as “Vanishing”), Dercourt tried to bring his career on a new level by adapting the novel “The Killing House” of a renowned British crime fiction author Peter May in a French-Korean co-production and set in Seoul. After the premiere at last year’s Busan, some minor festival bookings and limited theatrical and online releases, it is now released globally on various digital platforms.

The topic is set in an opening sequence. A bulky man (Choi Moo-seong) goes to an underground surgical facility from which he picks up a heavy load in suitcases. The facility itself turns out to a mob-operated organ harvesting point, and the organs obtained there go through a complicated procedure of being masked as properly imported ones before being transplanted to the patients. However, the real plot starts with a discovery of a female dead body in a nearby stream. The body has been there for at least one month, so it cannot by identified by any of the conventional means, but the strange thing about it is the fact that the victim died while being under heavy, but still not lethal dose of anesthetic.

Luckily for the detective Park (Yoo Yeon-seok, glimpsed as young Woo-jin in the original “Oldboy”, who made a career on television after that), who handles the case, a forensic conference is in town and the French “star” of it, Alice Launey (Olga Kurylenko) is an expert on a new method of fingerprinting the heavily decomposed bodies, so he enlist her help. First they discover the identity of a dead woman (who turns out to be a legal Chinese immigrant working for the cleaning service), and then the bigger plot that involves more bodies and an organ trafficking scheme. While they try to solve the case(s), a romantic spark between them lights up…

The trouble with the otherwise thick plotting in the script Dercourt co-wrote with Marion Doussout starts with very rough characterization in which only the detective and the forensic expert have a hint of psychologically deeper personality, which still does not make their romance any more believable. The rest of the characters, with the noble exception of her assistant Mi-sook (Ye Ji-won), turn out to be the usual types, such as the mob contractor, the assassin (Kim Woo-hyung), the corrupt doctor (Lee Seung-jun) and the mobster, making the whole organ-trading scheme and therefore the investigation feel quite generic.

However, Dercourt is slightly better as a director than he is as a writer, at least in the terms of composing the atmosphere with a dash of noir in a largely procedural plot, resulting in a modern, distinctively European thriller with some Korean flavour. In his defence, the plot of the original novel takes place in Shanghai, in a very different legal and political system, so some things might have got lost in translation.

Acting-wise, the accent is put on the only proper star of the film, Kurylenko, who not only speaks a tad too perfect French, but manages to play an indefinitely troubled character in a very convincing manner, while the rest of the cast pretty much follows her leads. As Park, Yoo Yeon-seok adds a bit of a goofy charm, but the lack of a real chemistry could be seen in more emotionally demanding scenes. The same could be said regarding the mystery of Mi-sook’s character, which Ye Ji-won plays competently in her own terms, but it still cannot be a match for Kurylenko’s skills and zest.

The technical components of the film are probably the highlight of the film, especially when it comes to Axel Cosnefroy’s cinematography in very distinctive lighting that is dim and cold at the same time, and Jérôme Lemonnier’s eclectic music score that uses the neoclassical forms, electronic beats and noirish jazz in a counter-intuitive fashion. Valentin Féron’s editing also deserves praise for the quick pacing favoured over clarity and especially for the craftiness of the opening sequence that raises the hopes that “The Vanished” would be a better film than it eventually is.

All things considered, it is a decent, if unremarkable piece of work. Less than sum of its parts, more likely a median value of them, it is sufficient for an average viewing experience at home, which makes digital platforms a good choice for the primary channel of its distribution.

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