The explosion of true crime content over the past few years has shone a light into a dark corner of guilty human pleasures. What used to be an interest aficionados kept under wraps for fear of arousing suspicion that their fascination with the darker side of life belied a darker side of themselves, these days the genre is discussed with glee, the subject available on all manner of platforms from podcasts to documentaries.
Hot on the heels of House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, a docuseries exploring a mysterious Indian family, Netflix has released another similar three-episode limited series.
The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea focuses on the 10-month period between October 2003 and July 2004, when a serial killer ran amok in Seoul, officially murdering 20. Unofficially? “There could be 100 victims.”
Those who watched House of Secrets will recognise the paint-by-numbers steps the documentary takes, stretching what might have been a two-episode arc into three. The journey the viewer is taken on feels a little formulaic, the first episode opening with the familiar tactical shock and awe.
“For a long time I couldn’t get the scenes out of my head,” says the first of many talking heads. “How the victims were dismembered, how they might have suffered.”
Warning, spoilers ahead.
Four motiveless murders
On October 9, 2003, police were called to a home invasion in the wealthy area of Gugu-dong. There they found three members of the same family bludgeoned to death. The grandmother lay face down on the ground by the entrance; the daughter-in-law in the kitchen. At the top of a flight of stairs covered in blood, was the son.
“There was an ominous air about the place,” recalls Kim Hee Sook, a forensic officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, and the first woman dispatched to the scene.
Detectives from Gangnam police station soon arrived to tell detectives they had a similar case in their district of Sinsa-dong, when two weeks earlier, on September 24, an elderly couple were killed in a similar fashion, with no robbery taking place in a seemingly motiveless murder.
Two more home murders followed. On October 16, in Samseong-dong, when a grandmother was dragged into the bathroom of her home and killed, and in Hyehwa-dong on November 18, when two people were found dead in a house the killer had then set alight, leaving a one-year-old boy as the sole survivor.
Shoe prints found at the scenes connected the murders, leading the press to begin toying with the eternally spine-chilling phrase "serial killer". By their own admission, the police had nothing, until CCTV footage, surprisingly rare in the city of about 10 million, showed up a man near the fourth crime scene wearing a jacket belonging to the victim’s husband.
'I did it to kill society'
The brief history and cultural lessons weaved throughout the series are as fascinating, if not more so, than Yoo Young-chul, the man eventually brought to justice as the killer. It’s an observation that would peeve the hot-headed murderer, who found himself endlessly interesting.
Police remain adamant that prior to the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis, crime in Seoul could be easily compartmentalised and distinguished by motive: he did X to her because of Y, and so forth. Most law enforcement officers interviewed for the documentary agree that the 1998 $10 billion bailout of the country by the IMF ushered in a new era of socioeconomic division. One that brutally peeled back the layers of South Korean society to reveal the lack of a safety net or societal concern for its citizens. In the words of one talking head: “The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”
From this crisis, the deprivation experienced by a huge proportion of the population turned into alienation, providing the perfect breeding ground for the already depraved Yoo, who would later target the wealthy in his initial killing spree, while telling the press: “I did it to kill society. When I came to the bitter realisation that money was all that mattered, I thought of myself as enforcing the very punishment myself.”
Caught by those he killed
Recreated scenes are interwoven with real-life footage, police videos, press accounts and interviews with relatives of some of Yoo's victims. The voice-overs are, at times, distractingly bad, with police officers given Tony Soprano-esque brogues, while the accomplished women who helped to capture the monster are over-dubbed in whispering, childlike anime voices.
When images from the captured CCTV footage were released to the public, although they only showed the killer’s back, it was enough to stop Yoo from seeking out his next victims in the wealthy areas and turn his attention to the underbelly of society; to those whose deaths wouldn’t generate a conversation, let alone a headline – sex workers in the red light district.
Brothels, though illegal, were tolerated, with police taking bribes to turn a blind eye. Here, Yoo was a child in a sweet shop, amping up his activities until, by 2004, he was averaging a murder a week – by conservative estimates.
“Their voices were taken away from them,” says Lee Soo Jung, professor of criminal psychology at Kyonggi University, of the women Yoo killed. “No one cared.”
It is ironic, then, that it was the help of a brothel-owning police informant and two female sex workers who put themselves in danger to pose as potential clients of Yoo, which allowed police to finally capture him on July 15, 2004.
‘My son phoned as I was chopping up a body’
Male arrogance met male arrogance in the police interview room as officers admitted to slapping the suspect around the head in ways that would leave western defence lawyers decrying police brutality. For his own part, sat at the interview table, a handcuffed Yoo took a piece of A4 paper and started drawing tally marks on it, telling police: “This is how many people I’ve killed.”
Then, in an act of darkly comic persuasion, the killer promptly escaped. Calmly walking out of the station when the two officers assigned to oversee him both left the room, each believing the other was watching.
Found the next day in the red light district, and telling police they were no match for him – another darkly humorous moment given that he was surrounded – from that point on Yoo willingly, boastingly, opened up about his crimes.
Leading police to the hidden hill behind a temple on which he buried his dismembered victims, police would later question themselves over the morality of parading the killer before the nation’s press during the dig, giving him the opportunity to compare himself to “Superman” among other things.
Desecrating and beheading the bodies of the women he killed, he admitted: “There was only one moment that made my hair stand on end … It was the moment my son called [on the phone] when I was in the middle of chopping up a body.”
Victim's mother attacked while killer gets national platform
While Yoo frequently saw himself as “god-like”, others refer to him throughout the docuseries as the “devil.” But he is neither. He’s just a man.
At the heart of this story lies a tale as old as time. That of the “angry young man” you can find as easily in a Reddit sub as in the Twitter comments sections of women who dare to voice opinions on the social media platform. Yoo seethed with misplaced perceived injustice, turning his fury on women. Voiceless women.
Everywhere you look in this documentary, you’ll find men, men, men, voicing theories, giving opinions. Female voices are few and far between, and when they are heard they are, depressingly, firsts and onlys; Kim Hee Sook, the only female forensic officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, or Kim Jang Ja, the first female police chief in the country.
“He resented women,” observes one of the male police officers with the kind of understatement only one whose gender is not actively weaponised against them might muse.
For a story that’s ultimately about misogyny, there are far too many male voices dominating the conversation in the documentary, including Yoo's. He is then shown speaking on the steps of the police station, given a national platform to air his misogynistic manifesto.
A scene which, when compared to the mother of one of the victims being kicked down the steps by a police officer when she tried to hit Yoo with an umbrella, ultimately leaves a lingering bad taste in the mouth.