“Dark Figure of Crime” had the honour of opening last night the 3rd edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF), together with its director Kim Tae-kyun and actor Kim Yoon-seok, who also received The Best Actor Award from the Festival and has a dedicated retrospective within the Programme.

Dark Figure of Crime is screening at London East Asian Film Festival

Many crimes every year go undiscovered for different reasons, sometimes just because they are not discovered, other times because sadly nobody cares about the victims. It is what criminologists call the “dark figure of crime”, that opaque amount of unreported and consequentially uncared-for, crimes. Shifting the point of interest from the killer to the victims is what makes Kim Tae-kyun’s new film “Dark Figure of Crime” stand out from the abundance of South Korean serial killer movies. Based on a true story, the project was inspired by a TV program called “Unanswered” whose incredible quantity of source cases made director Kim Tae-kyun think about the families of the vanished victims and their suspended lives in a limbo of uncertainty, as he told us in the Q&A after the screening.

All starts as a coincidence. Kim Hyung-min (Kim Yoon-seok), a narcotics detective is questioning a new informer, Kang Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon), when he abruptly starts to talk about disposing a chopped up corpse years back. The detective – probably well used to nut-heads – is not too impressed but he must reconsider when the homicide squad storms in and arrests Tae-oh in front of his very eyes, for the brutal killing of his girlfriend. Unexpectedly, Tae-oh calls Hyung-min for a further confession in prison and gives him some additional information about the crime. Once he’s gained the detective’s trust with that little bait, he confesses 6 more killings, giving little details about them and about the victims. Hyung-min is shocked and puzzled. Is it all a fabrication of a delusional psychopath? Or is it a genuine account, aimed at some sort of advantage?

Nobody thinks the confession is worth investigating, but Hyung-min has a feeling that it could be true and after asking to be transferred to Homicide, he starts looking into places and people reported missing in those years. The more the detective develops an obsession with these cases, the more Tae-oh’s behavior becomes erratic and inconsistent but the amount of resurfaced unresolved crimes is unbelievable to Hyung-min who – we will discover – is himself a collateral casualty of the “dark figure”. In a turn of game, finding the victims becomes the crucial way to charge the killer.

Kim Tae-kyun’s film is an acute character study of two different obsessions. The serial killer’s compulsion has been explored in every possible angle by many dedicated movies and “Dark Figure of Crime” is no exception in rendering a boastful, large, narcissistic portrait of the perpetrator, and his pleasure in playing cat and mouse with the detective. His give-and-take technique is very effectively depicted and it implants the doubt that it could all be a clever move to discredit the police force, in order to obtain a reduced sentence at the trial.

On the other hand – refreshingly – Kim Hyung-min’s character is quite different from the stereotypical film detective; he is not the scruffy, rude, soju-drinker lamp of ill-placed masculinity, usually also a bad husband or a bad father, often found in South Korean (and not only!) crime movies. Kim Hyung-min is a middle class man, quiet and well mannered, he plays golf and drives a decent car and he is discreet about his private life. He is – in other words – an ordinary man, very easy to relate to and he is driven by a sorrowful empathy for “those who are left to wonder”. As the actor told us at the Q&A, the real great inspiration for his work on the movie was Peter Falk’s “Columbo” and his peculiar investigative style, never too pushy, always calm, just solving one piece at the time, bit by bit.

The two excellent performances are obviously a very strong asset in a movie that is so character-based and they don’t disappoint. True-story movies in general are hard to nail and can suffer of occasional plunges of tension along the way but “Dark Figure of Crime”’s blend of top-notch acting, confident direction, svelte editing and few comic-relief additions makes it a solid and entertaining work.