17/11/2010 Leave a comment
Country: South Korea
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 127 minutes
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Park Hae-il, Byeon Hee-bong
IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
2003 Cannes Film Festival
2003 Hawaii International Film Festival
2003 London International Film Festival
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Best New Director / FIPRESCI Prize (for giving new insight into the roots of political repression in a dictatorship under the guise of the hunt for a serial killer) / Silver Seashell
2003 Cognac Festival du Film Policier – Audience Award/Grand Prix/Prix Médiathèques/Special Prize of the Police
2003 South Korean Grand Bell Awards – Best Actor (Song Kang-ho) / Best Director / Best Film
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival – Asian Film Award
2003 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – Audience Award / Holden Award for Best Script
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival – Golden Seashell
There is something appealing about movies surrounding true unsolved murder cases that draws me to them. Cinema carries the innate capability of re-enacting incidents and capturing such emotions at its rawest. The murderer has escaped scot free, injustice has not been served, and simply put, he/she is still lurking out there. It is tempting to mention other movies like Zodiac (2007) by David Fincher, an award-winning serial killer film that has garnered plenty of accolades, which is based on the investigations surrounding the Zodiac Killer who operated around the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, claiming 37 murders in his letters to newspapers that comprise of alphabets snipped from media publications. Four decades on, the case still remains unsolved. Or, there is also The Black Dahlia (2006) that premiered at Venice, and which is based on the murder of Elizabeth Short, a waitress who was gruesomely murdered in 1947, the unsolved murder having fuelled many books and film adaptations.
And before these films there was Memories of Murder (2003) that premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival. Based on a true story set in 1986 South Korea, a land under militia rule, the case has been publicized as South Korea’s first serial killer case. And yes, what is alluring about the movie is how the case remains unsolved, more than two decades on. This unique time and context indeed provides a breath of fresh air from the typical big-city setting of many films of this ilk. The tumultuous political period has led to poor policial reforms and management, leading to the scot-free escape of this murderer. Further to that, a lack of forensic technology in South Korea back in those days bears an imprint on how DNA test samples have to be shipped to the United States or to Japan to be examined, thus proving to be an impedent to the solving of the case. Even in the middle of a murder investigation, we see life at its most banal as Bong intersperses elements that sum up the livelihood at that era. The establishing shot captures a boy in the meadows, chasing after a grasshopper (01:23). The vastness of the plains and the mountains as the backdrop with nary a skyscraper in sight shows the poverty that reigns under the regime. There is no real order, plenty of unrest, and the police holds no authority whatsoever over the townsfolk who has no qualms about visiting the crime scene and trampling over all the evidence. In what are certainly caveman antics, Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) of the judiciary resorts to torture methods to force confessions out of his suspects. In a sign of times, the law actually allows that. But his methods that will be deemed controversial, unethical and downright cruel today, obviously run afoul of reality when the murders persist despite having forced the confessions out of several suspects. The police chief appears as clueless, and he does not appear to possess any innate ability to study the evidence of the case. Rather, he clamors for media glory, for his name to be linked to the solving of a big-name case. Alas, that glory is not to come.
With a lack of technique, enter Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul who has volunteered for transfer to the rural village in a bid to solve the case. And in all matters of dissonance the handsome, laconic, taciturn big-city detective looks down upon the primitive techniques of the small-town policemen (“Documents never lie”, 52:40, though in a later line his own primitive instincts take over when he says “This document is a lie” 1:57:50). He tries to take charge of the case, he comes up with powerful clues by his own effort that his rural counterpart (“You don’t know this town, that’s why you talk nonsense”, 33:23 / “All perverts are like that. But my eyes cannot be fooled. One look and I know”, 1:08:44) could only grudgingly admit as valid—that the murderer has a modus operandi of striking only on rainy nights, and his victims decked in red outfits. They severally scare the autistic boy such that he runs into the path of an oncoming train and is killed, thereby losing their only lead. This dogged determination however proving to be his subsequent downfall as he becomes unable to deal with setbacks and with the reality that his methods may have proven lacking as well. We see similarities amid the vast differences. Both characters are prone to jumping to their own conclusions. In the scene where a factory worker decked in red underwear strips off and masturbates in the park (1:02:00), his heavy torchlight casting shaky shadows as he jerks off, we see the detectives assume he’s the murderer just on the basis of this pervertic action. Detective Park tortures him into a confession with ugly repercussions. In what is a blatant comparison between old-school patience and city efficiencies, Detective Seo evidently snaps when his conviction was proven wrong with inconclusive DNA evidence.
The tone is set in the opening sequence as a small boy crouches in a wheat field seemingly aware that something is going on. We only later learn of his autism, and his daredevil ways at parroting the police officer hard at work while they both look on at the bound legs of a woman’s body. Such attention to minute detail is eminent in Bong Joon-ho’s later works such as Mother (2009), and serves to add flavor to this film. Every little detail “is so real and unusual that it makes the scene jump off the screen at you” (Hunter, 2010). Detective Park bought the autistic kid a pair of shoes to make up for his earlier trauma at forcing a confession out of him, and the shoe takes on special significance at (1:42) when the kid gets knocked down by the train, with it bloodied and cast aside by the railway tracks.
Bong Joon-ho must be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite contemporary directors, given how both of his works – Memories of Murder (2003) and his monster follow-up The Host (2006) were both named in his Top 20 Favorite Movies since 1992 list.
Hunter, S. (2005, July 29) ‘Memories of Murder’: From Korea, a True Original. Retrieved on November 17, 2010, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/28/AR2005072802188.html