3rd London East Asia Film Festival: In Conversation with Kim Tae-gyoon, Director of ‘Dark Figure of Crime’

For a long period of time, Kim Tae-gyoon worked as an assistant director to Kwak Kyung-taek, the director of The Classified File, Friend: The Great Legacy and Eye for an Eye. Over the years, their friendship grew. Kwak Kyung-taek became Kim Tae-gyoon’s mentor, teacher and a friend. While working on the story of Dark Figure of Crime, Kim asked Kwak to co-produce and co-write the script, and the final result is superb. However, before the film got made, Kim Tae-gyoon wrote and directed another feature and released it as his debut, Spring, Snow (2012), a subtle story of an ageing woman who gets diagnosed with cancer.

The director Kim Tae-gyoon was warmly welcomed by the 3rd London East Asia Film Festival, during which the Dark Figure of Crime got its European premiere. We met with the director and talked about his project, its script development, and his work with the two distinguished actors, Kim Yeon-sook and Ju Ji-hoon.


Director Kim Tae-gyoon and Actor Kim Yoon-seok at the European premiere of Dark Figure of Crime (Photo © LEAFF)

Dark Figure of Crime was inspired by 869th episode of Unanswered, South Korean investigative TV programme. What exactly inspired you to make this film? What made you want to tell this particular story?

I found the relationship between the detective and the killer very interesting – that’s the main reason. The killer was already in prison, serving a long sentence for killing somebody, while in prison he told the detective that he killed several other people that no one knew about, which is obviously something he told the detective just to bait him. The detective was in a very ironic situation where he had to find out who the victims were in order to get to the truth.

I started researching and interviewing people who knew the detective to find out what happened because initially, I thought that this detective was someone that the media created, that there was just an image of the detective. Once I started interviewing people, I realized that this guy is very real and a sincere person: it surprised me that there is someone like this out there.

One thing that I thought of at the time was the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx from the Greek mythology; that was the kind of relationship that I imagined in the detective’ and the killer’s characters.

Kim Yoon-seok did a great job; what was the casting process like and why did you feel that he was perfect for his role?

I wanted Kim Yoon-seok to play the role of the detective; I felt that he was the perfect man for the job. We already know who the killer is and we are trying to find out who did he do it to, and his character had to look for the victims. Because it’s an investigative process that’s reverse from what we are used to seeing, I thought it could feel very flat to the viewers; the story required somebody who could pull it off in terms of showing the dynamics of what’s going inside in the wide spectrum of emotions that his character is going through. I needed somebody who was able to do that. Also, Kim Yoon-seok is someone that many Korean filmmakers would love to work with.


Director Kim Tae-gyoon and Actor Kim Yoon-seok (Photo © LEAFF) 

There are many scenes in the film that take place in a prison visiting room, where detective Hyung-min coaxes and even bribes the criminal, Tae-oh, to provide more clues in his confession. How was it for you to film those scenes in a confined space?

From the very start, I perceived this film as a location film. Originally, I was thinking of setting up a studio to create the prison scenes, but I felt like that wasn’t right for the concept of the story, for the concept of the film and also for the realistic/cinematic grammar that I was thinking of. I decided to go with a place that was real; we found an abandoned building and then we set up the room there, so it was like an open set, not a studio. Because the story is a true story, I felt that the mise en scène should also reflect that; it had to be very realistic. For example the lighting – we did it in a way where we used as much natural light as possible or we designed it for it to look like we had natural light.

Earlier you talked about Kim Yoon-seok being perfect in the role of the detective Hyung-min; what, in your opinion, made Ju Ji-hoon perfect for the role of the killer?

Kim Yoon-seok was already cast in the main role, but it was very difficult to find an actor who could play Kang Tae-oh’s character, because I designed his character to be very mysterious, with a lot of emotional ups and downs. The actor who would play the role of Tae-oh had to have a really wide spectrum of performance, and also, a very high level of energy. Some of the things his character says or does, an average person cannot identify with at all. There are moments when the viewer feels sorry for this guy, some moments when a person would think he is just a thug, and other moments when we can see the devil in him. I needed somebody who could pull off all of that, and it wasn’t easy to find someone who could. I went through the process of considering several different actors before taking Ju Ji-hoon on board.

Then I watched the film called Asura: The City of Madness where Ju Ji-hoon played a character of Moon Seon-mo, a character that goes after his desires, which later leads him to total destruction. I saw one of the layers of the character that he played and I thought that there is a potential for him to play Kang Tae-oh.

They say that when a film director thinks of an idea and decides to make a film, and then right up to the end when the project is finished, that there is an average of 20,000 decisions that a filmmaker has to make, but I am sure there are more than that. (Laughs) And out of all those decisions, I think the decision to cast these actors was like a stroke of God. It was the perfect decision.

Actor Kim Yoon-seok and Director Kim Tae-gyoon at LEAFF 2018 (Photo © LEAFF)

How difficult was it for you to make this film? Apparently, you worked on it for a few years.

I first found out about the story early in November of 2012, and I started researching the case. For one year, I worked with the actual detective; I wanted to get to know him and gain his trust. I also did the analysis of the case files and other similar cases, including the cases that involved psychopaths; the whole process took a total of six years.

When I found out about the story, it wasn’t an ongoing case, which added to the difficulty. But because I spent so much time researching, interviewing and getting to know the detective, after all of that time, the script came out very good.

Another interesting detail is that the case started in 2010, and then the sentencing was carried out in 2016, that also took six years; I found this to be a quite interesting coincidence.

How did the Korean audience respond to this film?

I am sure that this is the same around the world, but in Korea especially, the Korean audience has a high level of trust when they hear that the film is based on a true story. The term ‘dark figure of crime’ was unknown to me until I came across this case, and the public also wasn’t familiar with it. So I think that also added to the people’s interest in the film.

You co-wrote this film with Kwak Kyung-taek; given your initial vision, is the end result what you wished for the film to be?

It was perfect in my mind. Kwak Kyung-taek is actually my mentor, my teacher. I was his assistant director for a long time. We have known each other for over 22 years. Initially, I worked on the script, story development and research myself. I later asked him to be the co-producer and from that point onward, we worked on the script together. And also, he agreed on all of the things and even though we had disagreements, he trusted me and my instincts and he was very supportive.


Kim Yoon-seok and Ju Ji-hoon in Dark Figure of Crime (Photo © Showbox)

Speaking of writing and the screenplay, the pacing in the film gets faster and faster with each scene. Sometimes when the pace is fast, the narrative gets lost. How did you manage to keep the narrative clear and still maintain such fast pacing?

I decided from the beginning that the story had to be told and it had to be very clear, that was the most important thing to keep in mind. When you have a story or a film – like you said, when you have a detective who tries to track down a killer, the pace is usually very fast, the focus is on the pace; but what I felt about the story I wrote was that the focus was on the characters. At the same time, I wanted to bring a new dynamic to the genre.

In this film, we know who the killer is, so I had to find the right dynamic and ways to keep the fast pace. One thing that I did was that when the detective finds new bits of information, the audience is also unaware of what is happening; both the viewers and the detective learn about the clues ‘together’. I think that helped a lot for the audience to feel that the story is fast paced.


Director Kim Tae-gyoon and Actor Kim Yoon-seok at the European premiere of Dark Figure of Crime (Photo © LEAFF)

Did the actors follow the screenplay, or was there any ad-libbing, especially in the scenes between Kim Yoon-seok and Ju Ji-hoon?

When it comes to Kim Yoon-seok, he had a lots of good ideas, and that helped a lot with his character. He did a lot of work in theatre; he is very knowledgeable. In the case of Kang Tae-oh’s character, it had to be done A to Z, because Ju Ji-hoon uses a specific Busan dialect. It would have been very difficult for him to improvise. Ju Ji-hoon was very faithful to the script, and even the minor details – how to walk, talk and his gestures – were scripted; but of course there was some input from him, he had valid ideas when it came to his character’s physical movements.

The dialect used in the film is the Busan dialect, and for someone who is not from that region, it is incredibly hard to speak. Aside from Ju Ji-hoon’s character, most of the cast members were from Busan – I made sure that most of the cast was from that area. Thanks to that, the film sounds authentic and the story is more credible.

There are two reasons why I kept the dialect; one is that the events in the film actually took place in Busan, and the second one is that this film and the story itself are about the unseen, the invisible and that element was very important to me. You might think that you know Busan well, but there are things that I am still unaware of; there is something mysterious about the place.

We would like to thank Kim Tae-gyoon for taking the time to answer our questions and London East Asia Film Festival for organizing this interview.

Written and transcribed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Sanja Struna

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler and Sanja Struna

Featured photo © LEAFF









Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.