Memories of Murder (2003) 살인의 추억

Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Runtime: 127 minutes
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Park Hae-il, Byeon Hee-bong

Theme: Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Film Festivals:
2003 Cannes Film Festival

2003 Hawaii International Film Festival
2003 London International Film Festival
2003 Tokyo International Film Festival
2003 San Sebastian Film Festival

Awards:
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

Nominations:
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.

 

References

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

 

 

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Empire of Passion (1978) 愛の亡霊

Country: Japan
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.9/10

Film Festivals:
1978 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score

Nominated:
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress

The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.

The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.

The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.

This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.

The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.

Monga (2010) 艋舺

Country: Taiwan
Language: Taiwanese (Hokkien), Mandarin
Director: Doze Niu
Running Time: 140 minutes
Starring: Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan, Rhydian Vaughan, Huang Teng-hui

Theme: Crime/Gangsterism

Ratings: IMDB.com: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
2010 Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
2010 Taipei Film Festival
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival

Awards:
2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Actor (Ethan Ruan) / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Lee Lieh, producer) / Best Sound Effects
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Art Direction
2010 Hawaii International Film Festival: Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award
2010 Stockholm International Film Festival: Telia Film Award

Nominations:
2010 Golden Horse Awards: Best Original Film Score / Best Art Direction / Outstanding Taiwanese Filmmaker of the Year (Doze Niu)
2010 Taipei Film Festival: Best Actor (Mark Chao, Ethan Ruan) / The Grand Prize
2010 Tokyo International Film Festival: Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award [lost to Israel’s Intimate Grammar by Nir Bergman]

  • Selected as Taiwan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 2011 Academy Awards.

There is without doubt a revival of Taiwanese commercial mainstream cinema that began with Cape No. 7 (2008) that managed to draw dwindling theatre audiences back to the cinemas for a local production. This upward trend is further bolstered with Monga (2010), a gangster film set in 1980s Taipei within Monga in the Wanhua District, an area akin to the seedy red light district of Geylang in Singapore with its chain of brothels and gang affiliations within the area. The key to this revival, I believe, lies in the nationalistic sentiments towards modern Taiwan, unquestionably fuelled by Mainland Chinese sentiments that the island once known as Formosa and that is formally named the Republic of China should fall under their control, which the fiercely-independent Taiwanese frown upon. Both movies are historical and somewhat indulges in the rich cultural heritage of Taiwan in their respective portrayals, whilst being mainstream fare that cast big names as their leading protagonists. Cape No. 7 had popular singers Van Fan and Rachel Liang while Monga has popular teen idols Ethan Ruan and Mark Chao who definitely played a major role in drawing crowds to the theatres. This formula can probably be referenced by dwindling national cinemas around the world. Monga, essentially isn’t exactly cookie-cutter mainstream fare with its dark and broody ongoing narrative.

Monga may be mainstream fare, but it doesn’t alienate alternative audiences as well – Director Doze Niu (鈕承澤) in his sophomore feature film directorial effort since the critically-acclaimed low-budget “What on Earth Have I Done Wrong?” (2007) that clinched a FIPRESCI Prize, and which told a story about a director attempting to canvass money so as to produce a mockumentary film. Casting upcoming actor Rhydian Vaughan from Winds of September (2008) which made it to Toronto International Film Festival was also wise. As a result, Monga cuts greater swarthe across the film festival circuit, being an official selection under the Panorama section of Berlin International Film Festival this year, whilst also playing in Hawaii, Tokyo and Stockholm. Not bad at all for an otherwise commercial movie that eventually opened during the Lunar New Year period in Taiwan, edging out the worldwide hit Avatar in its opening week.

Doze Niu straddles the fine line between criticizing the gang lifestyle and unnecessarily sensationalizing it in this movie, and as I watch the disquieting story unfold there is a sense of paramount importance of the environment plays in adding to the realism of the conventional story, which sets the movie apart in spite of its stereotypical story arc. Setting the story elsewhere would simply do injustice to the film. The sharply entertaining film is divided chiefly into three acts – that of initiation of Mosquito into the gang, the everyday processes the gang go through and lastly that of Monk’s betrayal, with the tone that is cast very different within these three acts. The first one is also the most engaging, as the greenhorn gangster learns the ropes of what it takes to be a gang member with the tone of black comedic wit.

A key scene occurs when the gang members play truant, sitting on the school fence pondering what to do for the day. Monk with his outstretched hand inviting Mosquito to join them (0:13:58), and  the clasp of the hand as he helps Mosquito up the wall (0:14:01). The camera lingers on the gaze between the two characters as they sit on the wall (0:14:04) in spite of the establishing lower-up shot that captures the other gang members. This sets the stone for the important relationship as it unfolds throughout the movie. Further, Mosquito’s seemingly innocuous action of looking back into the school ground as he jumps up the wall is a lasting symbolism of him bidding the old life farewell. And this key scene is recaptured in the final moments of the film. But the way the film has transcended conveys a melancholic feel to this flashback.

Two metaphors are prevalent throughout the whole film. They are the yo-yo which Monk gave to Mosquito which the latter can be seen holding and playing with throughout most of the film as an indication of the status of their friendship, which sometimes seem to harbor subtle homosexual connotations in terms of how close the characters are (and as testament to that the actors Mark Chao and Ethan Ruan kissed whilst on a local variety show to promote the film). Also, the Japanese Sakura flower bloom as something that Mosquito wants to personally witness at least once in his life, with his (apparently) late father in a postcard, pasted in Mosquito’s wardrobe, that is set against the flower bloom. This is given absolute significance in the final scene as the wounded Mosquito lies on the ground, while Monk was shot by the other gang members, his blood spatter blending into the sakura (2:12:51).

The fight scenes are beautifully shot and framed, sometimes in many lengthy shots interspersed with sweeping close-ups that capture the realism of the blows and punches, cast against slow motion techniques and a soft instrumental accompaniment in what really is Mosquito’s coming-of-age tale. A young prostitute bearing a birthmark on her face that she desperately tries to hide from her clients was interweaved into the story as a separate narrative, Mosquito and herself teaching each other about the value of tenderness and love, with Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing at All providing the ideal soundtrack to the scene.

But the resounding question remains: what next for Taiwanese cinema? How will it build on this ongoing momentum created by Cape No. 7 and Monga in creating more cinematic masterpieces that can withstand international competition, yet straddling the fine lines of arthouse and commercialism? Even Jay Chou’s Secret (2007) was a relatively beautiful work that was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2008. Will this eventually spark of another wave of filmmakers who will build on the legacy left by the Taiwanese New Wave filmmakers of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in the 1980s which captured realistic, down-to-earth portrayals of Taiwanese life in stylistic treatments akin to the Italian neorealism movement? Only time will tell.