Director: Tae-Gyoo Kim
1h 50min | Crime , Drama , Thriller | 3 October 2018 (South Korea)
Playing London East Asian Film Festival 2018
LEAFF runs 25 October-4 November in London and beyond.
Launching the London East Asian Film Festival’s 2018 edition, director Tae-Gyoo Kim’s police thriller Dark Figure of Crime offers more cerebral and sombre material for viewers, even though both title and synopsis suggest a wild and visceral cat-and-mouse outing along the lines of Korean hits I See The Devil or The Chaser. I went in expecting a more outre tone and plot, but the film’s refusal to meet my expectations intrigued me, as did the story. Dark Figure of Crime is, in fact, based on a series of grim real-life events, which no doubt explains the more grounded approach but also why film has met with some controversy back in its homeland. It is a well-acted and serious-minded piece, though it won’t be for everyone.
Veteran Korean actor Yoon-seok Kim slips easily in to the role of world-weary but competent Busan detective Hyung-min, who is contacted out of the blue by a prisoner who is jailed awaiting trial for murdering his girlfriend, and is invited to meet to discuss a range of unsolved disappearances that the suspected killer is now mysteriously keen to confess to. This is the erratic, mercurial Kang Tae-oh (played with gusto by rising star Ji-Hoon Ju, who just manages to keep it from reaching the level of scenery-chewing), who confounds Hyung-Min by veering between thuggish, misogyinstic fronts, an air of childish innocence, and zen-like poise. Tae-oh goes on to sporadically provide clues to the detective about a series of seven disappearances and unsolved murders, but some of the leads are revealed to be blatantly false, whilst others take Hying-Min and his team tantalisingly close to a body or a vital piece of new evidence, but actually pinning any of these on Tae-oh remains impossible. Hyung-min, determined to solve the cases and finally bring closure to the families of the missing, feels he has no choice but to keep pursuing each of Tae-oh’s leads, but this risks putting the suspect in the driving seat and ruining Hyung-Min’s career. An ex-cop who was rundown into ruin by betting his career on trusting a serial killer’s ‘confessions’ that turned out to be a wild goose chase, warns Hyung-min that Tae-oh might not just be looking for attention, but might be attempting to manipulate the jury in his upcoming trial by creating a sympathetic portrait of a hapless suspect facing underhanded police attempts to pin any number of crimes on him. The tension comes from not knowing what will break first; the case or the patience of Hyung-min’s superiors to let him pursue this.
Pleasingly, neither cop nor criminal fit the classic archetypes here: Hyung-min isn’t the picture postcard image of an unstable, hard-drinking and rule-rule-bending cop (he’s dogged and takes risks in offering Tae-oh money to keep him talking, but is clearly deeply moved by the plight of the families of the missing that he meets) and Tae-oh isn’t the next Hannibal Lecter either. In fact, it is never really clear what Tae-oh is: mentally unstable, an overrated thug trying to get what he can, or just lucky. Is he really brilliantly playing the police in order to reduce his sentence, or just wasting police time because he can? Is the inability of Hyung-min to really pin any of the cold cases on Tae-oh more due to bad luck or careful planning on the suspect’s part in case he got aught? Like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, Dark Figure of Crime features a based-on-a-real-story plot where we wait for the sudden breakthroughs or satisfying sense that the world has been righted in vain. This might frustrate some viewers, but there is something to be said for an alternative view of a cop/criminal mind game that throws the whodunit out the window in the first act and feels more worryingly plausible for it, as instead of table-turning reversals and increasingly blurred moralities, we are pointed to a more likely truth that when a cop retires there will be a pile of case files on his desk marked ‘unsolved’. But in each one is a tale of sadness.