Part two of my Spotlight on South Korean Cinema series is a look at Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder.
Bong Joon-ho is best known in the west as the director of the internationally successful monster movie The Host. Yet, as good as that film undoubtedly is, his even earlier Memories of Murder (the local blockbuster that made the monster Bong hit possible) still probably stands as the ideal introduction to this unique auteur‘s filmography as well as the S. Korean New Wave as a whole. It is certainly my personal favorite Korean movie of recent decades. Memories of Murder, like most of the exciting films to come out of S. Korea in the early 21st century, is a young man’s movie: it was only Bong’s second film, following the black comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite in 2000, and he completed it when he was just 33-years-old. Also marking it as a quintessential work of the new S. Korean cinema is the way Bong offers a refreshingly original spin on well-worn genre elements. In much the same way that Nowhere to Hide uses the action-movie framework as an excuse to stage highly experimental set pieces, or Failan begins as a gangster film before daringly transitioning into an unabashed melodrama, or J.S.A. adopts the form of a political thriller in order to express a plea for tolerance and a desire for reunification between the two Koreas, so too does Memories of Murder resemble a murder mystery but only as a means for conveying a far-reaching social critique of S. Korea in the past as well as the present.
Like many Hollywood films that came out in the wake of the success of The Silence of the Lambs, Memories of Murder is ostensibly a murder mystery about the exploits of a serial killer. As such, some of the most familiar aspects of the movie are the scenes depicting the tensions and hostilities between various members of a police department — most of which result from their differing crime-solving methodologies — in the small town in which the movie is set. Specifically, the plot details the investigation into a series of serial murders by two dumb local-yokel cops, Detective Park (the brilliant Song Kang-ho) and Detective Cho (Kim Roe-ha). Completely out of their element because they have no experience in such matters, the brutal, quasi-fascist tactics of these characters soon come into conflict with the patience and reasoning of Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyun), a cop from Seoul who voluntarily moves to rural Gyunggi province in order to help with the investigation. Memories of Murder is, however, perhaps most interesting for how it deviates from the murder mystery and police-procedural genres — Bong’s point is not to put his characters through the paces of a routine plot but rather to paint a trenchant portrait of life under a military dictatorship in the mid-1980s.
In one of the film’s most telling scenes, the local cops can be seen violently cracking down on a pro-Democracy protest in the rain. Detective Cho, in particular, can be seen stomping with relish on a hapless victim with his combat boots. (Elsewhere we see how kicking suspects with a shower cap stretched over his boot, so as not to leave incriminating marks, is Cho’s preferred method of “enhanced interrogation.”) Shortly afterwards, Detective Seo uses more logical methods to discover that the killer’s modus operandi is only to attack women wearing red and only on rainy nights. Part of the local law enforcement’s failure to apprehend the killer, however, stems from the fact that they have been spread too thin as a result of having to quell political protests. At the end of the movie, Detective Cho’s leg is infected with gangrene and has to be amputated below the knee — a clever way for Bong to show, symbolically, that a politically repressive era has finally come to an end (though the film’s haunting coda shows what scars remain). Another aspect of the film’s sly social commentary is the way Officer Kwon (Ko Seo-hie), the only female member of the police department, is routinely discriminated against and treated like a glorified secretary when Bong takes care to show that she has genuinely good instincts as a detective; it is Kwon who discovers that the murders have all occurred whenever a certain obscure song is played on the radio, and it is only she who is able to extract crucial information in an interview with a would-be victim. Her male colleagues, however, disregard her suggestions and treat her as only good for fetching coffee. In these and other scenes, Bong implies that the tragic murders are merely one symptom of a broader trend of S. Korea’s systematic abuse of its female citizens.
Yet Memories of Murder moves in unpredictable directions in terms of both its ideology as well as its story. Detective Park may be a clueless idiot (in a long line of such characters essayed by Song) but viewer empathy with this character strangely increases as the film progresses, just as it likely decreases for the city-slicker Seo. This is in part because of the way Song Kang-ho is always the most charismatic presence in any movie in which he appears, but also because of the way these two characters seem to gradually exchange philosophies: by the end of the movie Park has become closer to being the voice of reason while it is Seo who is more prone to use brute force to exact justice, the civil liberties of suspects be damned. Then, in an immensely satisfying coda, Bong boldly flashes forward fifteen years into the future where Park, now a salesman for a company that makes juicers, quizzes his teenage son at breakfast about whether he had stayed up all night playing video games; the portrait of S. Korea’s transition from dictatorship to western-style democracy is now complete. But Bong doesn’t stop there: he then has Park revisit, by chance, the location of one of the first murders, a powerful scene that single-handedly explains the movie’s title. Frustrated as some viewers may be by his “open” ending, Hollywood-style narrative resolution would actually be antithetical to Bong’s true purpose — to emphasize the lingering effects of his characters’ darkest memories of the past upon their present.
Memories of Murder is available in a decent-quality DVD edition from Palm Pictures and as a superb-quality region-free Blu-ray from CJ Entertainment.
Bong Joon-ho’s next film, the international co-production Snowpiercer, stars Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho and Tilda Swinton, and will be released before the end of the year. Check out this early trailer, which I think looks exceptionally promising: