Shadow Detective review: Lee Sung-min in brooding, convoluted crime K-drama that longs for better days

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3.5/5 stars

“Everyone is bound to shoot themselves in the foot.” These are words that Kim Taek-rok (Lee Sung-min), the grizzled protagonist of the Disney+ crime drama Shadow Detective, keeps hearing around him.

The mystery tormentor who calls him up all the time, known only as “Friend”, speaks the words ominously, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before his targets fall. His targets are corrupt bigwigs connected to the local police department, including Commissioner Seo Gwang-soo (Kim Hong-pa), and he has been using Taek-rok to take them down.

The words are very familiar to Taek-rok and he eventually realises why – they’re his. He wrote them down in one of his detailed journals, which provide the show with its deliciously paranoid, grave and film-noir-esque voice-over.

The sentence proves to be doubly prophetic as the “Friend” is also destined to meet his own downfall.

Detective Taek-rok had a pretty rough go of it this season. We first met him living in a cheap and dank rented bedsit, guzzling meds to stave off his dementia, and going about his work as the surliest veteran officer in the fictional port town Geumo, which is suitably blanketed in perpetual grey clouds.

Taek-rok has long since alienated his colleagues in the department, many of whom he knows are on the take. One night he finally sits down with one of them – his former pal Woo Hyun-seok (Kim Tae-hoon) – but they fail to move past their differences.

When he wakes up the next morning with what may or may not be a hangover, Hyun-seok is dead, and the police are looking to pin it on him.

This is when “Friend” starts ringing him up and tormenting him. He orchestrates Taek-rok’s frame-up as the killer and threatens more trouble if he doesn’t do his bidding, which involves going back and fixing old cases which were closed with evidence that was fabricated by Taek-rok and his colleagues back in the day.

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Taek-rok is also divorced and more-or-less estranged from his grown-up daughter. In short, nothing is going well for him. Naturally, his troubles are only beginning.

He has a hard time ridding himself of the stink of suspicion. He works in the shadows to unearth evidence to exonerate himself and unmask “Friend”, managing to bring a few colleagues over to his side, including partner Lee Sung-a (Kyung Soo-jin) and rookie recruit Son Kyung-chan (Lee Hak-joo), but things keep happening to cast suspicion over him again.

The person he works hardest to convince of his innocence is the new Chief Inspector Kook Jin-han (Jin Goo), who recently transferred to Geumo and has a dim view of the city’s police department.

Taek-rok and Jin-han’s relationship is contentious from the very start; it only gets worse as the investigation wears on. Jin-han slowly comes around, as does Taek-rok, who is forced to recognise a younger version of himself in the determined young investigator.

The pair eventually join forces, but it’s not the buddy cop union you might have hoped for. These are damaged characters and working alongside one another only serves to amplify their negative characteristics.

Shadow Detective is a show steeped in regret and a yearning for halcyon days that probably weren’t as rosy as everyone remembers them. Surely Geumo was just as overcast then as it is now.

Most of the characters in the show are middle-aged men whose morals have been ground down by time. Taek-rok may still have his sense of justice, but it’s buried under a thick layer of cynicism.

Perhaps, then, the show is about ageing. Taek-rok is 57 and early in the show it’s suggested he can’t keep up any more – Jin Han outpaces him to run down a criminal and later suggests he should take a desk job. Add to that the fact his memory is beginning to fail him – although this tantalising early-onset dementia angle is never satisfactorily explored.

Accentuating this aspect of the show is the terrific location photography, with Taek-rok, whether alone or alongside other grizzled colleagues, often framed against barren beaches, pallid saunas and other vistas of a bygone city. The soundtrack, with its lonely foghorns and sharp seagull cries, reinforces this atmosphere of alienation and inexorable decline.

Shadow Detective gives us oodles of tone and texture, but it’s a pity that it’s all presented at face value. The show doesn’t give us much in the way of contrast, though there were opportunities to do so along the way.

Taek-rok has a family and child, but they’re hardly present. His daughter’s wedding is a rare moment that humanises him early on, but precious little else does throughout the show’s run.

Instead, he’s dragged through the mud – not to mention an overstuffed mystery narrative that eventually spins its wheels – for eight episodes, during which there’s little respite from the thick, brooding air.

The performances are great and there are plenty of grim and involving moments, but the show doesn’t quite hit the notes it promises early on.

However, after a few meandering episodes, season one does end on a powerful moment that injects some much needed emotion into the narrative, while also punting the mystery down the road for next year’s promised season two.

Shadow Detective is streaming on Disney+.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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