Through the Darkness: K-drama fans get their very own Mindhunter

PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/Viu Singapore

Korean films and dramas have long been known for their grisly serial killer tales, but criminal profiling — the application of behavioural sciences on criminal investigations — was only adopted by South Korean law enforcement in the year 2000.

By then, twisted thrillers such as Tell Me Something had already captured the public imagination, and the seminal Memories of Murder was only three years away.

Korea's first criminal profiler was Kwon Il-yong, and in 2018, along with co-author Ko Na-mu, he published Those Who Read Hearts of Evil, which served both as a memoir of his time as the head investigator of the Criminal Behaviour Analysis Team at the National Police Agency and as a probing study of notable violent criminals in modern Korea and what makes them tick.

If that sounds familiar, you might be thinking of either the Netflix show Mindhunter or the non-fiction bestseller it was based on, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, based on the experience of FBI agent John E Douglas, the world's first criminal profiler.

Through the Darkness, a new 12-part drama from SBS, is a loose adaptation of Kwon's book, which chronicles the formation and inaugural cases of Korea's first Criminal Behavior Analysis Team.

The Fiery Priest star Kim Nam-gil returns to screens as Song Ha-young, an unusually empathetic investigator with a traumatic past who follows his intuition as he employs techniques that fall outside the usual investigative parameters.

We first meet him as a child in 1975, visiting an amusement park. He boards a pedal boat with his mother and while reaching for a balloon he trips and falls into the lake. The mirth, music and colours of the fair are erased by the surface of the water, under which he floats in eerie silence until he finds himself face to face with the corpse of a young woman, decked out in sinister scarlet.

Fast-forward to 1998, when Ha-young is an investigator for a violent crimes division in Seoul. The scarlet returns, in the form of the rep caps worn by a serial rapist his team is attempting to track down. Soon an even worse crime darkens their doorstep, when a young woman's naked corpse is found in her apartment.

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Suspicion quickly falls on her boyfriend and a confession is beaten out of him, but Ha-young isn't convinced. He seeks the counsel of a man who is jailed after being pegged as the red cap rapist, and as he looks into his dark and twisted mind he gains additional insight into the events surrounding the murder.

His colleagues don't take kindly to his desire to dredge up what they consider to be a closed case, but one person who does support his inquisitive nature is Gook Young-soo (Jin Seon-kyu), a man trying to convince his colleagues at the National Police Agency to form a division for criminal profiling.

The first two episodes of Through the Darkness largely concern Ha-young's investigation into the true murderer of the young woman — and another who is soon discovered — and end with the formation of the Criminal Behaviour Analysis Team, whose more scientifically minded cases we can reasonably look forward to in subsequent episodes.

While the lives of FBI profiler Douglas and Korean profiler Kwon share parallels, Through the Darkness's similarities with Mindhunter appear to go beyond mere coincidence.

Douglas's book pops up on screen a few times and the structure of the team that is formed at the National Police Agency follows the same pattern: Supportive and avuncular older agent (Young-soo), precocious and antisocial profiler (Ha-young) and a cool and professional agent from another team who winds up assisting them (Yoon Tae-goo, played by Kim So-jin, who has yet to appear).

Whereas Mindhunter's profiler Holden Ford is antisocial in a chilling way, Through the Darkness adds an emotional spin on Ha-young. His profiling genius stems from his being an empath — helpfully illustrated in a flashback when on a rainy day he leaves his umbrella over a dead cat.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxtjl9Yxkwo[/embed]

Given the focus on profilers and the police force's initial hesitancy to them, Through the Darkness clearly favours psychology over gratuitous murder scenes. For the moment, the behavioural science of the investigations hasn't gone much further than 'my dad was a violent drunk' revelations, but perhaps the show will go deeper into the psychological underpinnings of crime now that the team is officially set up.

The case presented in the opening episodes is an engrossing one and like Mindhunter, many of the highlights came from Ha-young's sit-downs with prisoners and, in the best sequence of the series so far, an extended interrogation with a suspect.

Beyond the investigations themselves, the show also examines the higher echelons of the police force and political ramifications on the department, such as police-brutality demonstrations that crop up and give Young-soo the opening he needs to push for his team.

Through the Darkness is streaming on Viu.

READ ALSO: Song Kang-ho's 12 best movies from Parasite to Memories of Murder

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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