Crime – whether it’s committing it, solving it, or doing both all at once – has been a favourite subject for Korean TV/cinema productions in recent years and a quick skim at the synopses of many of the K-dramas released in 2022 will confirm the notion that Koreans and audiences abroad still crave a good crime show with unique Korean flair. Three years after Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) made waves and cinema history with its exponential popularity and acclaim, projects are still scrabbling to concoct the ultimate and elusive recipe for the perfect crime show.
Shadow Detective (형사록) (see IMDb page), an 8-episode series directed by Han Dong-Hwa and first released for non-Korean audiences via Disney+ on 26 October 2022, exceeds expectation and strides ahead of crime show competition, yet falls victim to the same production-based pitfalls many shows – Korean or otherwise – seem to experience when it’s time to wrap the story up in a satisfying way.
That’s not to say Shadow Detective doesn’t get a lot of things right, and by and large it certainly does; ironically, it’s how much this show did really well that makes the flaws all the more obvious and disappointing. The show is well-crafted, impeccably cast/acted, emotionally shot, and genuinely thrilling for the majority of its 8 episodes. Even as the lackluster truth to the show’s high-stakes plot starts to become crystal clear in episode 6, the show goes to tremendous lengths to convince you there’s still a twist to be had (even though there isn’t) for a further two episodes…and you strangely want to believe it.
Deflating conclusions aside, the performance of the ensemble cast is, without a doubt, the biggest ‘win’ Shadow Detective scores with lead actor Lee Sung-Min giving a particularly praiseworthy portrayal as aging detective Kim Taek-Rok. Taek-Rok is brash, impatient, distrusting, and unprofessional yet somehow intensely likable from the very start. You root for him every step of the way, regardless of how he gets to where he needs to go. Sparse but clearly-conveyed moments of subtle sentiment give much needed emotional vulnerability to Taek-Rok’s otherwise stoic persona and Lee Sung-Min’s skill as an actor is paramount to its establishment. More could have been done to humanize him – and others – but the lack of time spent on his sentiments is forgiven by the severity and time limit of the overall plot.
Entirely void of the joyfully over-saturated colours and K-pop idol-worthy faces frequently shoe-horned into shows in an attempt to gain viewers, Shadow Detective refuses the cheap tricks in favour of honest storytelling, raw character portrayal, and dreary cinematography that compliment perfectly the run-down, industrial seaside area the show takes place in. For all of its gloom, Shadow Detective‘s hard and realistic presentation is an oddly refreshing sight among the swathes of overly romanticised stories of other recent K-dramas in the same genre. Perhaps those same aspects will be too much for some viewers to handle; the tone is forlorn and often isolating while the plot is, needless to say, grim. If you’re a lover of noir films and moody stories, you’ll probably enjoy what Shadow Detective has to offer. At only 8 episodes in length, it’s far less suffocating than other hard slogs of depressing storytelling and has crucial wins along the way for the down-and-out lead character.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t divulge the identity of the person responsible for Taek-Rok’s living nightmare and encourage you to watch the show for yourself as it is a worthwhile run. I will warn, however, that you’ll probably be left feeling a bit nonplussed at the end of the ride. Even if you don’t manage to guess the perpetrator’s identity, the ambiguous and rather open final scene to the series is a head-scratching decision from a production standpoint as most K-dramas are limited series without multiple seasons. The lack of a truly satisfying finale preceded by two ultra-rushed, ultra-crammed episodes unfortunately groups Shadow Detective with other television cautionary tales that demonstrate exactly how not to end a show.
I have my own ideas about how I would have ended it and all I will say to that is two words: Fight Club. My husband and I spent the majority of the show thinking the resolution would be along the same lines and we were both not only let down but also genuinely surprised that it wasn’t, as it seemed the show was taking steps to point us in that direction. The writers/director may have thought they were being clever by sharing certain details with the audience to cause misdirection, when in reality they should have been focused on turning our suspicions away from the most suspicious acting person in the whole show.
Shadow Detective is an excellent example of crime drama filmmaking with the kind of fast-paced, high-stakes plot and unorthodox antihero audiences love to watch while still possessing an authenticity and simplicity most shows/movies these days are sorely missing. On many counts, I wish more shows would take a page from Shadow Detective‘s books. It’s an engrossing presentation through-and-through that doesn’t need CGI, huge shootouts, big explosions, and pretty faces to keep you entertained. For all of that, I easily forgive the flat ending and applaud the showrunners and cast wholeheartedly and would definitely recommend the show for anyone who enjoys a tough, gritty crime drama.