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.
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.