In a standard police procedural about a serial killer, a detective – maybe a bit of a loner, often with a drink problem – goes from crime scene to crime scene, from victim to victim, trying to fit together the pieces of the jigsaw that will eventually lead to the murderer, before the next crime can be committed.
Dark Figure of Crime turns these conventions upside down. Instead of starting with a body, we start with the murderer, arrested in the first scene and quickly put in jail. But no sooner is he locked up than he decides to tantalise a detective with a list of further murders for which he claims responsibility. Some of these murders have never made it onto the crime database. Some of them may be completely imaginary. The detective’s task is to sift fact from fiction, trying to link the scant information to known missing persons, find the victims and then link the crimes to the murderer.
Unusually for a crime flick, the detective seems to be a reasonably well-adjusted guy: he drives a fancy car and has no shortage of cash, which comes in handy as the only way the murderer –serving 20 years for murdering his girlfriend – will provide more information about his “confession” is to have a regular stream of income in prison to improve his status among the other prisoners.
In fact it’s that stream of income that provides the incentive for the murderer Kang Tae-oh (played by Joo Ji-hoon) to start the game of cat and mouse – though even before the information starts to flow, detective Kim Hyung-min (played by Kim Yoon-seok) has to help him settle a score with the prosecution team that put him away. For the detective, the motivation is twofold: to make sure that Kang stays in jail until he is no longer physically able to murder anyone else, and also a more human desire to acknowledge the deaths of these long-missing persons and give their families closure. As Kim Yoon-seok said in discussing the film after the screening, the most important characters in this movie are the unseen victims.
Much of the enjoyment in this movie is in the performances put in by Kim Yoon-seok as the detective and Joo Ji-hoon as the egotistic, psychopathic killer. And both characters have interesting stories which put their current behaviours in perspective.
Korean crime thrillers can sometimes seem too long (particular examples that spring to mind are Nameless Gangster and Believer). At 110 minutes Dark Figure of Crime looks like a reasonable length on paper but actually feels a little short. You feel that the resolution has not been justified by what has gone before. But this slight feeling of disappointment is dissipated by a nice, thoughtful coda which sends you away more satisfied, knowing that the story is not yet over.
Dark Figure of Crime screened on 25 October 2018 as the opening movie of the London East Asia Film Festival
Kim Tae-gyun (김태균): Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인, 2018).