For all of its melodramatic flourishes, The Raincoat Killer: Chasing a Predator in Korea takes murder—and the trauma it inflicts on others—very seriously. A three-part Netflix docuseries about South Korea’s most notorious serial killer rampage, it repeatedly fixates on the grief, regret, guilt and anguish of both the police officers who worked the case, and the relatives of the fiend’s many victims. Such sensitivity lends emotional weight to its non-fiction tale, which involved the inexplicable deaths of numerous individuals from various walks of life, and which eventually played out in a fashion that was so movie-ish, it would be borderline unbelievable if it weren’t true.
The Raincoat Killer (out now) tells the terrifying story of Yoo Young-chul, who from September-November 2003 broke into four different homes and viciously murdered their wealthy owners in Seoul’s well-off Gugi-Dong district. Considering that none of the victims were related, and that no valuables were taken, investigators were baffled. Making things more difficult, there was only scant reliable evidence found at the gruesome scenes: matching footprints at three of the four locations, and footage from a CCTV camera that depicted a young man, from behind, walking down the street wearing a victim’s jacket. In all of these instances, the killer had bludgeoned his targets in the head with a sharp-edged weapon. However, without that instrument in their possession, police found it impossible to specify the precise object used in the attacks.
Even linking these homicides was tricky, since as detectives and chiefs explain in The Raincoat Killer, at the time, South Korea’s police departments largely kept to their own districts, communicating little with their fellow officers and, in fact, going out of their way to keep quiet about unsolved cases; protocol was to only publicize crimes once they had been solved. That was the first of multiple serious mistakes that helped Yoo continue to operate undetected. To their credit, more than one speaker takes ownership of those failings throughout the series, admitting that bureaucratic and personal blunders were so widespread during their investigation that, in its aftermath, South Korea’s law enforcement operations were significantly reformed in order to stamp out inefficiency and corruption.
Though the trail went cold following those late-2003 slayings, police were soon consumed with another string of random crimes, this time in southwestern Seoul, where scores of young women were attacked while walking home alone late at night. These victims suffered head injuries similar to those seen in the initial crimes, and suspicions promptly grew—both among police and the media—that a serial killer was not only on the loose but might have now switched up his modus operandi as a means of evading capture. Additional homicides were also taking place in and around the red-light district, albeit unbeknownst to cops, since the disappearance of prostitutes was rarely something that landed on their radar—thus making these vulnerable women perfect prey for a predator like Yoo.
The Raincoat Killer swiftly contextualizes this killing spree in a post-2000 Seoul that was wracked by economic hardships and rising homelessness and inequality—and protected by a police force that wasn’t equipped for the new challenges it faced. In this environment, the country’s first criminal profiler, Kwon Il-yong, and forensic officer Kim Hee-sook, were at an immense disadvantage, left to put together a puzzle that was missing key pieces. The series confidently provides a historical framework for its narrative while maintaining suspenseful forward momentum. Moreover, its wealth of talking heads—including the Seoul Mobile Investigation Unit’s chief Kang Dae-won, team leader Park Myung-sun and detective Yang Pil-joo, all of whom played starring roles in the hunt for Yoo—lend it a measure of authenticity and immediacy, the latter peaking with recollections about Yoo’s post-arrest escape attempt, which was the byproduct of almost staggering incompetence on Park and company’s part, and was only rectified due to seasoned detective Kim Sang-joon’s quick thinking and some miraculous luck.
Interviews, family pictures, graphical maps, and archival crime scene footage and news reports are all employed by The Raincoat Killer. So too are staged reenactments, which are produced in such an over-the-top manner—all portentous slow-motion, fuzzy-faces, and evocative imagery—that they verge on the parodic. The floridness of those sequences is directly at odds with the sober testimonials of its on-camera subjects, whose comments about the responsibility they felt to the dead, and the toll their work took on their own psyches, are unaffected and heartrending. The result is a docuseries that often feels as if it’s of two minds about how to handle its chosen material, although for the most part, its stronger instincts prevail, especially thanks to its unwavering focus on the memories of those who endured this horrific ordeal.
Given how comprehensively it documents the pursuit of Yoo, it’s surprising that The Raincoat Killer never offers up much information about, or insight into, the killer himself. More than one person discusses Yoo’s resentment and hatred of women and the rich, as well as the dual-personality nature that allowed him to remain anonymous for so long. Yet aside from the randomly revealed revelation that he had a son (and, presumably, a wife), Yoo’s childhood, relationships, professional career, and prior criminal record—which, it turns out, was extensive—is never addressed by the proceedings. His uncovered face isn’t even seen on-screen; all we get are TV clips of him addressing the press while wearing a mask.
Yoo ultimately confessed to killing 26 people (and was convicted of killing 20), and denying him the notoriety he so desperately coveted is an admirable aim, but The Raincoat Killer goes almost too far in withholding vital details about the madman, leaving him such a mystery that he comes across as the very sort of mythic boogeyman he wanted to be. Better is its censure of institutional ineptitude and affecting portrait of the lingering scars that still plague the men and women whose job it was to stop Yoo from carrying out his wicked deeds—and those, like Ahn Jae-sam, who went through their own living hells trying to grapple with the senseless slaughter of their loved ones.