Dark Figure of Crime [2018] – A Gripping Serial-Killer Thriller with Minimal Bloodshed and Robust Performances

South-Korean film-makers are adept at making crime-thrillers that brims with intensity and potent performances. Kim Tae-gyoon’s Dark Figure of Crime (2018) belongs to such a long list of watchable Korean crime-thrillers, although it doesn’t rise to a position to be in the hall of fame alongside movies like ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘The Chaser’ or ‘Mother’. It starts off from an unconventional point, slowly builds the intrigue through a mental chess game that’s nearly devoid of blood violence, and ends with a conventional, cathartic ending. The one good thing about Dark Figure of Crime is that (for the most part) it avoids unnecessary dramatics. Only around the one-hour mark we see a cold-blooded murder committed on-screen, even though the film is actually about a serial killer, who has committed number of murders that has gone unreported or discovered. And unlike a lot of Korean and Hollywood serial-killer thrillers, director Kim Tae-gyoon doesn’t make a spectacle out of the killer’s sadism and keeps his narrative focused on the detective, who is committed to seek justice for the alleged victims.

The film’s English term (coined by criminologists) refers to the number of crime that goes unreported for various reasons. The narrative opens with narcotics division officer Hyung-min (Kim Yoon-seok) getting acquainted with a source (a cheeky young man) while working on a case. The source's name is Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon), who gets arrested in the same spot as a suspect in a Homicide case. From jail, Tae-oh calls Hyung-min to confess where he has concealed the key evidence related to his girlfriend’s murder. The detective unearths the evidence at the exact place the killer said, which becomes a embarrassment for prosecution side since the evidence they presented were totally fabricated. Yet, Tae-oh is convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years. Why would the man just for the sake of shaming the homicide detectives provide real evidence that leads to his conviction?

Right before calling det. Hyung-min, Tae-oh might have laid out his plans. On phone, he says there are six more bodies; men and women he murdered in cold-blood, then he chopped up the body parts, and dumped it in different sites. Tae-oh also provides great amount of details related to his alleged crimes that Hyung-min can’t dismiss it as the ravings of a mad-man seeking publicity. Hyung-min gets a transfer to homicide department, and despite the warning of his superior to not investigate cold cases, he keeps visiting Tae-oh at prison. Tae-oh draws the details of where he buried a corpse, and the hand-made map perfectly points the detective to a decade-old missing person case. Hyung-min even unearths set of human bones. But then it seems the statue of limitations for the case is over, and Tae-oh plays the fool, saying the confession is coerced from him.

The one step forward, two steps backward scenario continues as Tae-oh throws clues to murders he supposedly committed, but recants before the prosecutor and judge. A former detective (now a parking attendant) who was similarly played like this by a murderer warns Hyung-min that this is simply a strategy to arouse the cries of persecution so that the judiciary body would doubt the veracity of his conviction in the original (first) case (“He’ll get you to investigate crimes B and C for which he knows there won’t be enough evidence, then he’ll use his acquittals to cast doubt on his original conviction”). Meanwhile, Hyung-min provides Tae-oh money and gifts to sift through the half-lies or pierce through his clown act to extract something, which will help him collect some real evidence, all the while knowing that he is risking his professional career through these acts of bribery.

It is fascinating how the English title of the film allows room for interpretations. Apart from the official meaning of the term, it can represent the central dark figure skillfully using the benefit of doubt and legal loopholes; or it could suggest the inescapable shadow that keeps those left behind in a mood of painful uncertainty. Although this is pitched as a psychological thriller about a cop trying to outwit an intelligent sociopath, the writing takes a concise look at people living in trauma. The protagonist, det. Hyung-min has a traumatic past, but at the same time his righteousness doesn’t blind him to understand how the police hierarchy works. Kim Yoon-seok who plays the detective casually takes in the setbacks without engaging in polemical speeches about justice.

Mr. Kim’s brilliantly understated performance works perfectly in tandem with Ju Ji-hoon’s blustery presence (who recently played protagonist role in the TV series ‘Kingdom’). Ji-hoon can also be quietly threatening when the moment calls for (particularly in the scene he directs a quizzical look at the detective in the courtroom after winning a case). Eventually, as I mentioned earlier, it is director Kim Tae-gyoon’s focus on the very real costs of the killer’s actions that distinguishes the movie from bunch of serial-killer thrillers. The simple aesthetic construction and a predictable (yet satisfying to an extent) final act may not grant it a masterpiece status within the sub-genre (like ‘Zodiac’ or ‘Memories of Murder’). Nevertheless, it’s good to see a serial-killer feature that isn't obsessed with delivering gory delights in order to create suspense and tension. 


Ten Overlooked Gems I Recommend: First Edition

Emitai (1971)

This film from Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembene, generally hailed as the ‘Father of African Cinema’, is set in the colonial era as French troops abduct young African men to fight for them in World War II. Despite the lack of smooth production techniques, it offers a more plural, ambiguous vision of African history, social structure, and culture. 

Little Fugitive (1953)

Little Fugitive was made at a minuscule budget of $30,000 and shot on-location with hand-held 35mm cameras that couldn’t record sound (background noises and sparse dialogues were added in post-production). Although the film was turned down by major US distributors, it went on to score an Oscar nomination (Best Writing) and a Silver Lion Award at Venice Film Festival. In 1997. Moreover, it was selected for preservation Library of Congress, the world’s largest library. Plot? A seven-year-old boy Joey runs away to Coney Island and has a jolly good time. But you shouldn’t underestimate the marvelous uniqueness of this great independent film just by its simple plot.  


Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Yasujiro Ozu’s last black-and-white film was not only one of his most obscure works but also his darkest (also the only post-war Ozu film to be set in winter). The film unfolds from the perspective two motherless adult daughters of a middle-aged banker, who are very unsatisfied with their respective lives. Their mother ran off with another man when the girls were kids (during wartime). The mother’s sudden appearance now in Tokyo disturbs the already despair-filled daughters. Tokyo Twilight is a haunting film about denied love, made indelibly poignant by the trademark Ozu stylizations and phenomenal cast (which includes Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, and Ineko Arima).

Afonya (1975)

Afonya is one of the best Soviet comedies made in the 1970s (a list that includes The Irony of Fate, Office Romance, etc). Directed by Georgian Georgiy Danelia, the film reminds us of Fellini’s works, especially in the way film-maker observes life with all its sadness and happiness. The movie revolves around a self-absorbed middle-aged guy, who works as a plumber. He has a tendency to drink excessively and imagine ideal fantasies to root out the immense dissatisfaction of the mundane, urban life.

Baby Face (1933)

Film critics and scholars often cite Baby Face as one of the significant and controversial movies of pre-code era. It’s considered to be the last straw that propelled 'the powers that be' to bring about censorship rules. When the Hays Code went into effect, Baby Face was pulled from theatres and heavily censored. Set in the late 1920s with Prohibition era still in effect, the film tells the story of a young woman who unapologetically goes after the things she desires in life (and don’t get punished for that like the 40s femme fatale characters in film-noirs). Even by today’s standards, the raw sexual power let loose on-screen by the great Barbara Stanwyck retains its boldness and cool efficiency.

Ucho aka Ear (1970)

Czech film-maker Karel Kachyna’s The Ear was one of the most politically explosive movies to come out of the Czechoslovak New Wave. The film was withheld from circulation immediately upon completion and was screened at Cannes (in 1990) only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The events in the film unfold over a very long night, which also extends into the following morning. The protagonist is a Communist party bureaucrat named Ludvik, rapidly raising the ranks of power. He returns to his home with his wife from a party, only to find his front gate open, phone dead, and a car parked in the street. They both immediately go into panic mode and start recalling the evening conversations at the party to find signs of whether he is put under surveillance by the high-command. The film’s innovative pared-down aesthetics brilliantly evoke the climate of fear in a totalitarian society. 

Cairo Station (1958)

Cairo Station (aka ‘Bab el hadid’) could serve as fine introduction point to one of Egypt’s most renowned and controversial film-maker, Youssef Chahine (1926-2008). Considered to be Chahine’s first artistic breakthrough, Cairo Station was one part social commentary in the vein of Italian neorealism, one part lighthearted comedy, and one part psycho-sexual horror. And it’s captivating how the film-maker masterfully merges all these different styles. 

Hands Over the City (1963)

Francesco Rosi is one of my favorite political film-makers whose films show deep understanding of the power structures. In the stunningly visualized Hands Over the City, Rosi tells the story of a unscrupulous land developer in the post-World War II Italy. Anchored by the fierce performance of Rod Steiger, the film portrays how power and money breaks up institutions that were established to serve people.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Fred Schepisi, one of the leading directors of the Australian New Wave cinema, for his second feature-film opted to adapt Thomas Keneally’s 1972 Booker-Prize shortlisted novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Keneally’s Jimme Blacksmith is a fictional reconstruction of Jimmie Governor, a half-caste Aboriginal man, who embarked upon a path of grim revenge after suffering injustices at the hands of dominant Anglo-Australians. Although nominated for Palme d’Or at 1978 Cannes Film Festival, the film was a commercial failure. However, this is one of the most powerful Australian cinema as it seeks to scrutinize the inherent hypocrisy and prejudices held within a colonial society. 

Patterns (1956)

Originally written as a one-hour live TV teleplay by Rod Serling (the future writer of ‘The Twilight Zone’), Patterns is a brief yet ponderous look at the pressures within the executive suites of big-business. Fed Staples, a decent, modest man running small operations in the rural dye plant is recruited for a top position by the ruthless industrial conglomerate Ramsey (the intense Everett Sloane). The motive behind the recruitment is to oust aging vice-President, Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), whose business ethics is at odds with Ramsay’s. However, Bill and Staples soon become pals, which only intensify Ramsay’s actions to force Bill out the door. ‘Patterns’ is filled with great exchanges, made doubly memorable by its skilled cast. 

Border [2018] – A Genre & Gender-Bending Interpretation of Myths

Iranian-Swedish film-maker Ali Abbasi’s Border (aka ‘Grans’, 2018), the Un Certain Regard section award-winner at Cannes, is a twisted fable of outsiders which bracingly explores themes like identity, self-actualization, societal rejection, evil, and love. Part Nordic-noir and part horror, the film is based on a novella by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In) whose weird, creepy tales often compellingly re-interprets Norse mythology and folklore. Border opens with its protagonist, Tina (Eva Melander) sniffing the air, and her upper lip quivering in the process. If Tina isn’t wearing her customs official uniform she might be mistaken for a Neanderthal (with heavy brows and jutted-out face). But her physical oddities are simply related to ‘chromosome flaw’. However, there seems to be an added benefit to Tina’s ‘flaw’, since she is gifted with super-human olfactory power. She projects her hooded eyes at the disembarking ferry passengers and perfectly detects a contraband item: a bag full of alcohol. Naturally, Tina is bullied and sniggered at for her so-called flaws and gift (the teen whose liquor is confiscated mutters, “ugly bitch”).

Although Tina’s colleagues and higher officials treat her like a human-looking canine, she is not sniffing out the miscreants by the substances they are carrying, but by focusing on the reek of shame, fear, and guilt that’s attached to the perpetrators. This is established earlier as Tina discovers a SD card full of child pornography by sniffing out the man’s guilt. When not working at the ferry dock, Tina lives a tranquil domestic life in the densely forested Swedish countryside. She shares her humble abode with good-for-nothing pony-tailed boyfriend Roland (Jorgen Thorsson) who breeds muscular dogs for competition. She regularly visits her ageing, dementia-afflicted father (Sten Ljunggren) living in a caring home. Tina and Roland doesn’t seem to have anything in common and there’s not much passion in their relationship. Nevertheless, the cabin in the woods (belongs to Tina’s father) provides solace for Tina since she seems at one with nature and the creatures that wanders with in its realm. A beautifully evocative shot of Tina reaching out toward a fox gazing into her bedroom from beyond the glass window suggests her entrapment in the human world.

Tina’s quiet display of discontent changes when she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a male traveler who walks through the customs. The man remarkably shares her distinctive physiognomy (similar forehead, large nose, etc). She stops him but doesn’t find any smuggled items on him. Later, Tina actively seeks out the mysterious and confident Vore, and invites him to stay in a vacant cabin closer to hers. Meanwhile, Tina’s innate gift is sought out by a higher police official investigating the child pornography content. The authorities hope she might ‘sniff out’ a pedophile ring operating from a quiet urban neighborhood. Tina’s fascination for Vore pushes her to begin a tentative relationship with him. The bond not only leads to ecstasy-filled animalistic couplings, but also makes Tina to question everything she thought she knew about herself. Moreover, the ostracized woman’s quest for personal identity reveals some difficult truths about Vore.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s tales often tackles fantastical elements within a very quotidian, modern setting. It allows him to allegorize the mystical, non-normative features of folkloric creatures (vampires, trolls, etc) with the myriad differences existing among human society. In Border, writer/director Ali Abbasi intriguingly visualizes the Lindqvist’s world of dichotomies and differences. The domestic space of Tina within the dense woods elegantly embodies the dichotomy between human world and nature. The dualities don’t just exist in physical spaces, but also inhabits the liminal space, such as Tina’s conflict over reveling in sensual pleasures and making rational decision. Abbasi also effectively uses another Lindqvist story-telling tool: ambiguity. If the non-normative genitalia of Vore posit a kind of ambiguity in gender specification, the invisible border Tina crosses to embrace her true identity provides equivocal results. Tina and Vore are ‘same’ in a sense. But after gaining a companion who fits into the human-made parameter of ‘sameness’, Tina only goes on to discover the stark difference between herself and Vore. This reveals the reiterated lesson of Lindqvist stories: in this world of difference, self-discovery and finding a soul-mate doesn’t always mean you are less damned.

Ali Abbasi’s debut feature Shelley belonged to ‘natal horror’ sub-genre which had the potential to be latter-day ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ yet was never realized due to its poor writing. However, Abbasi did a fine job in building up the mood and dread. In his sophomore directorial effort, Abbasi’s visual plan blends well with the complex ideas in the script. The way Abbasi and his co-writer Isabelle Eklof merge the police procedural subplot with Tina’s existential quest initially seemed a bit jagged (the ‘pedophile ring’ narrative thread isn’t there in the novella). But this subplot does seem at home with a Lindqvist story (since the author’s stories perpetually deals with emotional and physical abuse directed towards children). Furthermore, the police investigation adds more weight to the narrative’s sociopolitical themes. The two central performances keenly express the experiences of social outcasts. Eva Melander especially provides a revelatory and profound performance as Tina. She mesmerizingly emotes through heavy make-up. Apart from comprehending the logic of the character she is playing, Melander also immaculately embodies Tina’s emotional life and her physicality.  Overall, Border (110 minutes) succeeds in realizing the general experiences of being an outcast through uncannily unique dramatic build-ups.