Murder Death Koreatown (2020)

“It’s too dark, I can’t see,” says the unnamed (and unseen) investigator at the beginning of Murder Death Koreatown, filming from his Koreatown apartment as police lead someone off in the alley below. “It looks like a woman.”

The investigator has just captured on camera the arrest of Mi-sun Yoo for stabbing to death her husband Tae-Kyung Sung in their nearby apartment – and now curious about a peculiar detail of the case (the location of blood stains on the street some way from the crime scene), the investigator takes it upon himself to make a video-based enquiry. After showing an online report on the murder, he says: “So for any of you people watching this on youtube, saying, ‘Oh yeah, it’s fake! It’s fake!’, check out the weblink. I’ll just hold this here for a second: http://www.koreadailyus.com/wife-murders-husband-in-koreatown.” You can indeed check the website for yourself.

Everything we see in Murder Death Koreatown purports to be part of the investigator’s video. For this is a fictive found footage film, following a template laid down by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999). It establishes its apparent authenticity from the amateurishness of its camerawork, from the sheer banality of scenes in which the investigator walks an endless circuit of his neighbourhood trying to interview people, from the complete absence of any of the usual credits that conventionally open and close a feature (good luck identifying the names of the film’s director, cast and crew), and from a mock-up site that seems to verify the story’s connection to a real crime.

“I think the case is closed,” says the investigator’s girlfriend Jess early on in the film. “I think you’re going to drive yourself crazy trying to figure this out. I think you’ve just got to give it up.” The investigator does not give it up – and as he descends further and further into his own investigation, pursuing ‘clues’ that include nocturnal communications from the victim’s ghost, crazy Korean graffiti, card readings from a psychic, the ramblings of a homeless Vietnam veteran, otherworldly signals discerned in bathroom curtains and a voice from a sewer drain, it becomes increasingly clear that Murder Death Koreatown is less a first-person POV amateur detective story, and more an oblique portrait of its maker’s mental breakdown. 

Though the ‘camera-shy’ investigator studiously avoids appearing in his own film (there are a few momentary glimpses of his reflection, but you have to wait till the very end to see properly what he looks like), his endless live narration and conversations with his various subjects present a picture of an unemployed, depressed, somewhat aggressive man still suffering from the trauma of childhood loss. For the investigator is a person equally dogged and deluded who is looking for a sense of purpose and meaning, and imagines he will find it for himself in a series of questions phrased in such a way that they can obviously have no rational answer. 

“There is some weird shit going on in this neighbourhood,” the investigator insists. Yet as he elaborates a paranoid conspiracy involving malevolent Korean street pastors and a ‘cursed’ portal to hell, and wilfully ignores any of the considerable evidence to the contrary, we can see that he has become as marginalised and deranged as the destitutes and down-and-outs whom he interviews, and that he is himself more dangerous than any putative cabal of murderous preachers. Yet in mystifying its own ending, Murder Death Koreatown leaves us, like the investigator, grasping for a transcendent truth that the film itself cannot sustain. Even as it shows us what the investigator films, it also invites us into his disturbed headspace, making unhinged conspiracy theorists of us all. After all, as the Vietnam vet puts it, “Everybody has their own separate rabbit hole.” 

Falling somewhere between Christopher MacBride’s paranoid cult-investigating found footage film The Conspiracy (2012) and David Robert Mitchell’s crazed conspiratorial LA noir Under the Silver Lake (2018), Murder Death Koreatown sketches a whole community of disconnected, overlooked people, and an individual lost in the dark and unable to see.

© Anton Bitel