Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인, Kim Tae-kyun, 2018)

Dark Figure of Crime poster 1No matter how accurate statistics relating to criminal activity might be, there are many more acts of violence and immorality which, for various reasons, will go unreported. Criminologists refer to this phenomenon as the “Dark Figure of Crime”. Kim Tae-kyun’s cerebral thriller takes the strangely poetic term as its title (암수살인, Amsusalin) and does indeed revolve around the perfect murder and a man who claims to have completed six of them before abandoning his system and getting himself caught. Yet unlike many cops and robber dramas, Dark Figure of Crime is not about the killer but about the hidden victims who’ve lived a life haunted by the horrible uncertainty of whether their loved ones abandoned them but are alive and well somewhere else, or have fallen victim to some terrible event.

Narcotics officer Kim Hyung-min’s (Kim Yoon-seok) introduction to a new source of information takes a turn for the unexpected when he first starts telling him about having disposed of a body some years ago and then is promptly arrested by Homicide for the murder of his girlfriend. Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon) is convicted and sent to prison, but calls Hyung-min and complains that the police framed him when they didn’t need to. Tae-ho murdered his former girlfriend alright, but the evidence the police submitted was faked which has annoyed him. He draws Hyung-min a map to where he buried the “real” evidence just so he can catch the police out acting improperly and embarrass them as well as earn Hyung-min’s trust for the next part of his plan, which is vaguely confessing to another six murders. Hyung-min can’t know if Tae-oh is on the level or just messing with his head but feels as if he has to investigate all the same.

Not everyone understands Hyung-min’s commitment to this strange series of cold cases. After getting himself a transfer to Homicide, Hyung-min’s new boss warns him about another officer who was tricked by a bored felon and ended up losing everything – once a promising policeman he’s now a divorced carpark attendant. A meeting with the former officer yields another warning – men like Tae-ho know the law and they play with it. 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. Hyung-min is wary but also hooked. He knows Tae-ho is playing him, but thinks he can win by giving him the opportunity to slip-up and give something away he didn’t quite mean to.

Tae-ho is certainly a dangerous, unhinged young man no matter how much of what he says is actually true. Hyung-min can’t know if any of this is real or just a bizarre game Tae-ho has cooked up because he’s got 15 years and no one ever visits him, but then he starts turning up suspicious absences. As he tells him in a tense conversation late in the game, none of this is really about Tae-ho. Hyung-min couldn’t care less about his big man act and is not impressed by his “crimes” or the ways in which he got away with them though he does want to make sure he never gets out to hurt anyone else. What Hyung-min cares about is the victims whose family members are living with the unresolved trauma of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Something Tae-ho could quite easily help with if he had a mind to, but seeing as Tae-ho only wants to play games Hyung-min will have to find out on his own, and he will stop at nothing to do so even if he ends up manning a rundown police box in the middle of nowhere for his pains.

Living with a trauma of his own, not even Hyung-min has much faith in the police hence why he needs to complete this case himself – he simply doesn’t believe anyone else will bother. Police in Korean films are universally bumbling and incompetent if not actually corrupt and selfish. Hyung-min is an exception though his opinion of his profession may not be much different to the stereotypes you see in the movies. He doesn’t care about getting a big promotion or being the guy who catches the big fish, he just wants the truth to be known and the past laid to rest so the indirect victims can begin to move on with their lives. The “dark figure of crime” refers not only to the hidden and unresolved, but to the oppressive spectre cast over those left behind with only pain and worry. The terrifying thing is, there may be countless other dangerous people out there whose crimes go undetected not because they’re criminal geniuses but because no one really cares enough to stop them. Subtly subverting serial killer movie norms, Kim pulls the focus from the self-aggrandising villain to remind us of the very real costs of his actions while making a hero of the dogged policeman who refuses to to give in to a societal expectation of indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Jang Hoon, 2010)

secret reunion posterStrangely enough, North Koreans in South Korean films are often marked by a naive nobility, filled with all the “goodness” that is otherwise so absent from the hypocritical egalitarianism of the nation that raised them. Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion (의형제 / 義兄弟, Uihyeongjae) is a perfect example of the ongoing trend in its direct contrasting of a pure hearted North Korean operative betrayed by his comrades, and the cynical NIS officer who turns to a shady career in the private sector when a botched operation gets him fired. An interesting look at North/South relations, Secret Reunion is equal parts buddy cop comedy and probing thriller but places the heartfelt connection between its perfectly mirrored protagonists firmly at its centre.

North Korean agent Song (Gang Dong-won) reads a bedtime story to his unborn child over a telephone whilst preparing for an operation south of the border, while NIS officer Lee (Song Kang-ho) bickers with his wife about their daughter’s education. Song, along with another agent, Tae-soo (Yoon Hee-seok), is to meet a top North Korean hitman known as Shadow (Jeon Kuk-Hwan) and assist in his mission to take out a prominent North Korean defector. Horrified by Shadow’s abrupt murder of the target’s wife and mother-in-law, Song draws on Shadow in defence of the man’s young son whom Shadow has also marked for death and places himself in the firing line in the process but is “saved” when Lee and the NIS turn up following a tip-off from Tae-soo who has betrayed them. Lee and Song briefly catch sight of each other but the operation is a bust which allows both Shadow and Song to escape whilst causing mass civilian casualties from stray police bullets and general panic.

Six years later Lee, fired from the NIS and divorced by his wife, spots Song again during his shady line of work as a finder of missing persons which often sees him tracking down runaway mail order brides from Vietnam. Unable to go home after being branded a traitor, Song is living as a casual labourer under a false South Korean identity. Unbeknownst to Lee he recognises the NIS agent but is unaware Lee has recognised him, especially when he offers him a job at his “company”. Song, intrigued, accepts in the hope of getting enough money together to bring his family to the South while Lee is hoping Song will lead him to Shadow and path back into the NIS but despite their best efforts the two men begin to develop a deep and warm understanding of each other even whilst working at cross purposes.

Song and Lee are indeed mirror images. When we first meet Song he’s eagerly embracing his role as a father and lamenting the fact that he cannot be with his pregnant wife while promising to be home soon. Lee, by contrast, argues with his wife over the phone and abruptly hangs up to go back to police business. Neither man is able to have the close and loving relationship with their daughters they would like – Song because he cannot return home and worries for the safety of his family, and Lee because his wife has remarried and moved to England. Lee’s loss of family is a personal failure first and foremost, but also a consequence of the botched operation in which Song escaped – hence Lee’s desire to capture Song is also part payback for ruining his life, but one which is frustrated by his gradual awakening to Song’s uncomplicated pureheartedness and identification with his own separation from his wife and child.

Song’s nobility is used against him by the heartless North Korean hitman, Shadow, who decries the “pathetic Southerners ruled by emotion” and warns Song that the “Great Nation cannot tolerate someone so fragile” when taken to task over his heartless murder of the defector’s South Korean family members. Lee, the NIS agent, resorts to barely legal immorality when stripped of his authority in becoming a finder of missing persons. The work largely involves tracking down trafficked women who’ve been tricked into coming to South Korea to marry rich and handsome men but often find themselves shackled to cruel husbands who regard them as slaves to be beaten and tortured. Yet Lee sends them back, knowing exactly what will happen to them when he does – something which Song refuses to allow. Despite coming from a brutalising regime, Song has retained his innate humanity, battles injustice and (tries to) protect the weak where Lee, a police officer in a (recently) democratic developed nation, quips about the nature of capitalism being learning to find happiness in stealing the wealth of others and is content to make himself complicit in a system he otherwise does not condone.

Despite their differences the two men come to see themselves in the other, discovering the better qualities of an “enemy” and becoming conflicted in anticipating the day when they will eventually have to confront the secrets they’ve been keeping. Jang keeps the tension high as Lee and Song play each other while Shadow dances around in the background, presumably playing a game which is entirely his own. Nevertheless the bonds of brotherhood between North and South are firmly repaired in Lee and Song’s eventual transition to blood brothers, restoring their severed familial connections whilst building and strengthening new ones.


International trailer (English subtitles)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Kim Jee-woon, 2005)

bitterweet life posterAs Boss Kang (Kim Young-chul) tells the hero of Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생, Dalkomhan Insaeng), no matter how well things are going, it only takes one mistake to make it all float away. Like any good film noir, the forces which conspire to ruin the quiet, orderly life of cooler than thou gangster Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) are those of desire as they come in conflict with codes of loyalty and decency. Sun-woo, like many a lonely hitman before him, finally wakes up to the emptiness of his life only to find no point of escape except the one he has often provided for others in precisely the same situation.

Smartly suited, Sun-woo is the trusted manager of the casino bar, Dolce Vita. Taken away from his elegant dessert in the upstairs restaurant, Sun-woo deals with a group of rowdy customers in true gangster fashion by launching in with a series of jump kicks and quickly thrown punches that reveal just why it is Sun-woo rules the roost. Sun-woo’s boss, Kang, has a special mission for his most trusted minion – keep an eye on his much younger girlfriend, Hee-soo (Shin Min-a), while he travels to Shanghai for three days. Kang thinks Hee-soo is having an affair. If she is, Sun-woo’s options are either to call Kang right away or take affirmative action on his own initiative.

Sun-woo investigates, but much to his surprise finds himself taken with Hee-soo. She is indeed having an affair, something which Sun-woo tries to ignore but finally has to be dealt with. A sudden pang of sympathy stops him from contacting Kang or pulling the trigger. Instead he decides to let the pair go on the condition they never see each other again. Thinking it’s all behind him, Sun-woo tries to go back to his regular job but he’s still dealing with the fallout from playing whistleblower on a high ranking gangster’s son.

Kim opens with an arty black and white sequence of tree branches swaying. In the story offered in voice over a disciple asks whether it is the trees or the wind which are moving, but the master replies that is is neither – it is the heart and mind which move. Like the branches, Sun-woo’s heart has begun to stir. Not love exactly, or lust, but movement. Sun-woo gazes at the way Hee-soo’s hair brushes her shoulder, at the way she walks and smiles at him. Listening to her cello rehearsal, his own emotional symphony begins, dangerously unbalancing his previously one-note existence with its identical suits and minimalist apartments.

Yet if Sun-woo’s downfall is Hee-soo and her alluring vitality, it was Kang’s first. An ageing gangster, Kang feels foolish taking up with a young girl but just can’t help himself. He loves the way Hee-soo couldn’t care less about what other people think, but that also worries him because she’ll never care what he thinks. Kang’s childishly romantic gift of a kitschy lamp with two owls huddling together on the base is the perfect symbol of his misplaced hopes – oddly innocent yet ultimately redundant. Notably, the lamp is one of many things shattered when Sun-woo takes Hee-soo’s lover to task.

Realising he has been betrayed, though not quite for the reasons he thinks, Sun-woo vows revenge. Everything has gone wrong, and he no longer believes in any kind of future which has him in it. Pausing only to send a more mature romantic gift to Hee-soo, an elegant lamp she’d admired on one of their shopping trips, he marches off towards certain death no longer caring for own life in his quest for vengeance and retribution. Repeating Kang’s questions back to him, asking for the real reason any of this happened, doesn’t get him very far but even if these two men have shared the same folly, they fail to understand each other even in death.

Returning to the master and his pupil, the closing coda recounts another story in which the pupil wakes up from a dream, weeping. The master asks him if he’s had a nightmare but the pupil says no, he’s had the sweetest of dreams. He’s crying because he’s awake and knows his dream can never come true. Sun-woo too has woken up, he knows there’s nothing for him now except to accept his fate. He has but been asleep, dreaming a sweet dream, and now he must wake and taste life’s bitterness just as he prepares to leave it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Confidential Assignment (공조, Kim Sung-hoon, 2017)

confidential assignmentSouth Korean cinema has a fairly ambivalent attitude to its policemen. Most often, detectives are a bumbling bunch who couldn’t find the killer even if he danced around in front of them shouting “it was me!” whereas street cops are incompetent, lazy, and cowardly. That’s aside from their tendency towards violence and corruption but rarely has there been a policeman who gets himself into trouble solely for being too nice and too focussed on his family. Confidential Assignment (공조, Gongjo), though very much a mainstream action/buddy cop movie, is somewhat unusual in this respect as it pairs a goofy if skilled and well-meaning South Korean police officer, with an outwardly impassive yet inwardly raging North Korean special forces operative.

In the South, Gang (Yu Hae-jin) is hot on the trail of a suspect he’s been chasing for quite some time but just as he’s finally about to catch him, his phone starts ringing. The cute ringtone featuring a little girl’s voice saying “daddy, pick up – don’t pretend to be working” is impossible to ignore and so Gang answers, chats to his daughter, and lets the suspect get away. In the dog house at work, Gang winds up with all the rubbish jobs before finally being saddled with a “special assignment” – babysitting a North Korean policeman as part of a collaborative detail chasing a possible defector/dangerous criminal the North are keen to drag back home for possibly inhumane treatment.

The Northerner, Lim (Hyun Bin), has his own reasons for chasing the criminal in that he is the only surviving member of a squad wiped out when a superior officer decided to go rogue and run off with a set of plates for printing counterfeit money. The North need the plates back, but Lim’s motives are personal more than merely patriotic and what he wants is vengeance for the death of someone close to him rather than protecting the embarrassing secret of North Korea’s counterfeit currency conspiracy.

For obvious reasons neither of the two men is able to trust the other but the confusion and suspicion is only increased by Gang’s total lack of knowledge about the case. All he knows is that they’re looking for a defector – no more, no less. Lim isn’t happy about having a South Korean cop getting in his way and quickly ditches him as soon as possible only for Gang to turn on his ace detective abilities and eventually end up at the same place through policeman’s instinct. Gradually a sort of grudging camaraderie builds up between the two as they’re forced to spend more time together and their odd couple buddy cop antics become the film’s main draw.

Lim, knowing nothing of life in the South yet suspicious of Gang, goes along with some of Gang’s goofier attempts to rein him in such as extended gag in which he gets him to put on an ankle bracelet by telling him that it’s a secret detective’s badge, reassuring him that his is in the cleaners, only for him to meet another suspicious type out on the road. So that he can keep track of him better, Gang’s superiors order him to take Lim home so he can watch him day and night much to the consternation of his wife but delight of his slightly younger sister-in-law who is instantly smitten by Lim’s chiseled features. Lim reacts to all of this with obvious vigilance but comes to like and respect Gang’s family who eventually welcome him into their home without reservation, even taking pains to try cooking North Korean food when he appears reluctant to join them at mealtimes.

Never quite engaging with the political subtext, Confidential Assignment is less about North/South co-operation than it is about complementary skills and the creation of an unexpectedly complete buddy cop unit. Gang is instantly impressed (and a little scared) by Lim’s obvious physical capabilities as he leaps from high balconies and fights off a whole room of bad guys armed only with soggy toilet roll, but Lim also comes to respect Gang’s bravery, kindness, and dedication to his family. Confidential Assignment might not be the most nuanced cinematic portrayal of North/South relations but its good-natured warmth, silly comedy, and impressively staged action scenes make it one of the most entertaining.


Confidential Assignment was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Bow (활, Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

The bowKim Ki-duk is not known for his conventional approach to morality but even so his 12th feature, The Bow (활, Hwal), takes things to a whole new level of uncomfortable complexity. While nowhere near as extreme as some of Kim’s other work, The Bow takes the form of a fable as an old man and a young girl remain locked inside a mutually dependent relationship which, one way to another, is about to change forever.

The old man owns a fishing boat on which he lives with a young girl most assume to be his granddaughter. This theory is quickly disproved by the old man’s obsession with his wall calendar on which he excitedly crosses of the dates, making a note of how many there are left until the circled day on which is marked the word “wedding”. Whose wedding, one is apt to ask but the obvious answer is the correct one. The old man plans to marry the young girl on her 17th birthday. Having “found” her ten years ago, he’s been patiently raising her and now awaits his reward. It’s not clear if he has actually asked the girl, who seems to look to him as a paternal rather than romantic figure, but at any rate the relationship between them seems fairly solid at this point.

That is until one fateful day a young and handsome student boards the boat and immediately captures the girl’s attention. Having been cooped up here for ten a whole years seeing no one other than the old man and the guys who come to fish, the girl is instantly smitten – just like Miranda laying eyes on Ferdinand for the very first time. The old man is worried – is he about to lose his prize bride to a young buck? With the fateful day approaching, the girl becomes increasingly cold and rebellious towards her father/husband-to-be, though which direction she will eventually choose is anyone’s guess.

The old man is very protective of his charge, taking out his bow and arrow when the other guys on the boat try it on (and some take the chase to quite unpleasant places) but perhaps that’s more about defending his property from spoilage than it is about saving a defenceless girl from a traumatic situation. Neither the girl nor the old man speak very much, occasionally one whispers to the other who then passes the message on via another whisper to whomever it was intended for. Perhaps they genuinely have no need for talking but at any rate the girl never voices any objections to her life on the boat and the only signs of rejection given are a sullen look, rebellious courting of the customers and finally a good old fashioned slap to the face.

The bow of the title is both a weapon and a musical instrument when the string is tightened over a drum rather than across an arrow. The artist and the warrior are truly two sides of the same coin, swapping drums for arrows as the occasion calls. The old man, who is more or less cast as the protagonist of the tale meeting a final swan song, has all these qualities. A rough sea hand, he lives a life of isolation alone with the girl on a boat in the middle of the sea, the music their only form of entertainment. As well as the fishing business, the man also tells the fortunes of his customers by firing arrows at a picture of a Buddhist deity while the girl rides a swing in front. The boat itself is a world entire, with its own rules and rituals – all things are contained inside of it, violence mixed with beauty and love mixed with fear.

It’s ironic in one sense that the girl’s would be rescuer is another man with less prurient designs, but still designs all the same, on her as a woman. That she’s apparently lived on this boat for ten years with people coming and going all the time and with no great attempts to maintain a convenient excuse is shocking in itself. Whether the relationship between the old man is entirely genuine or born of a kind of Stockholm syndrome is a matter for debate, but Kim opts not to fully explore the uncomfortable elements of this unusual situation in favour of casting the old man as a kind of love fool.

Though actually featuring much more dialogue than the average Kim film, The Bow is at heart a symbolic exercise which becomes a complex and extended Buddhist metaphor. Playing out like a boat bound The Tempest, the old man becomes Prospero with a bow rather than a staff and as a prophet rather than a magician. The student, like Ferdinand, shatters their peace by bringing the outside world into their idyll with all of its pleasures and complications. The old man faces a choice, burn his books and abandon his kingdom or keep his daughter/wife-to-be fearful enough to stay with him rather than the young man who offers her, literally, the world, which she has never known. Kim descends into a surrealist frenzy as the finale approaches, culminating either in a beyond the grave consummation of true love or a spiritual rape, depending on your point of view. Whichever you choose, The Bow is both a complex and poetic exploration of human relationships but one that proves unpalatable and, ultimately, hollow.


Original English language trailer (dialogue free, English text)