It’s unsure who is the cat and who is the mouse in Kim Tae-kyun’s psychological thriller.
“I have to tell you everything. How is this not the perfect crime?”
Around the world, there is a term used to denote the number of crimes that go unreported or undiscovered – dark figure of crime. This is the phrase used in the English translation of the title of Kim Tae-kyun’s film (I’m almost certain this isn’t the same director of Volcano High despite their shared name), and seems perfectly fitting as – if you weren’t aware of the term before – it certainly describes this movie’s antagonist. In it, Kim Yoon-seok plays Kim Hyung-min, a detective in Busan who apprehends and captures Kang Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon) for murder after bribing a confession out of him in a noodle shop.
Some months later, Kim is playing golf when he receives a phone call from Kang, who wishes to confess – only to Kim – several other murders which never went reported. The police is reticent and wish to focus their efforts on current crimes, but Kim perseveres. He begins the search for the missing people, based off of nothing but the shaky testimony of Kang, who knows exactly what he’s doing and at this point probably toying with the detective. With his credibility dropping, Kim is forced to believe Kang, and with his friend Detective Jo (Jin Seon-kyu), they slowly start to unravel Kang’s twisted past.
Dark Figure of Crime is loosely based off of real events, and an episode of Unanswered, a Korean television show which deals in cold cases and unsolved crimes, which told of a series of murders in Busan which were never discovered or investigated. By using reality as inspiration, screenwriters Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-kyun imbue the story – which could easily have felt contrived – with a sense of grounding. The pair worked with the real life detective of these cases, and through his help created a film that feels more like Zodiac than Se7en, and is all the better for it.
Keeping the suspense high is the director’s use of flashbacks, their relevance being not entirely clear at first. While it seems at first they are straightforward showcases of events in the past, it’s not made evident – at least initially – whether or not this is just Detective Kim’s imagination filling in the blanks. As the audience, you’re thrown into this game, never quite sure of who’s going to come out on top. This is particularly powerful when both leads get so deep into their roles and give stunning performances.
The dichotomy between the two is truly excellent, and doesn’t muddy the waters with noble bad guy intentions or crooked cop shenanigans. Protagonist and antagonist are clearly defined here, and Dark Figure of Crime is actually stronger for it. Ju Ji-hoon gives us a villain who seems completely void of remorse or empathy, whose character, suffering from some undiagnosed mental illness, has to kill to “clear his head”. It’s a great performance that makes Kang frighteningly real in his coldness.
Meanwhile, Kim Yoon-seok offers up a hero who is perfectly willing to sacrifice his position in the police if it means solving crimes and offering the families peace. He’s an uncorruptable force who won’t fabricate evidence, or coerce confessions (except through constant bribery). He’s both a principled, incredibly stoic, but also highly flawed in a way that makes sense for the character. Having based him on a real detective allowed for a very well-rounded character. Together, the two play wonderfully off each other, equally getting the upper hand or being duped by the other.
Dark Figure of Crime is a very solid film: it wouldn’t be the opening gala picture for this year’s London East Asian Film Festival if it wasn’t, but it certainly isn’t without its flaws. While the story generally moves at a good pace, there are times when it takes a few strange turns or jumps to conclusions. These are far and few between, and not likely to really do much to the viewing experience, though. If you’re looking for a Fincher-esque fix with great performances and an exciting plot, though, you’re in for a treat.
Verdict: Filled with tension and plenty of intrigue, Dark Figure of Crime is an example of top quality thriller filmmaking.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Missing people: God only knows
Rage gauge: Max!
MVP: Detective Jo, naturally
Dark Figure of Crime (2018)
Also known as: 암수살인 (Amsu-salin); lit. Man and Woman Murders
Director: Kim Tae-kyun
Writers: Kwak Kyung-taek, Kim Tae-kyun
Kim Yoon-seok – Kim Hyung-min
Ju Ji-hoon – Kang Tae-oh
Moon Jung-hee – Kim Soo-min
Jin Seon-kyu – Detective Jo
Heo Jin – He Ok-sook