Bong Joon-ho's sophomore feature "Memories of Murder" is, quite simply, a must-see modern classic. This sophisticated crime drama recounts the investigation of a series of unsolved murders that occurred in the city of Hwaseong (Gyeonggi Province) between October 1986 and April 1991. Bong reportedly drew inspiration from Kim Gwang-rim's play "Come See Me", as well as Alan Moore's graphic novel "From Hell". The film earned the interest of more than five million viewers when it was released in Korea in 2003, which made it the most watched Korean movie that year. In addition to being a huge crowd pleaser, "Memories of Murder" was awarded a number of accolades locally and abroad. Most notably winning Best Director and Best Actor (Song Kang-ho) at the 2003 Grand Bell Awards – Korea's longest running and most prestigious awards ceremony.
Set during Korea's military dictatorship, "Memories of Murder" has us follow detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and his team's investigation into a string of perverse murders that claimed the lives of ten women over a six-year period; however Bong's film only includes a few of these killings. Park prides himself on his ability to discern the moral fibre of suspects simply by using his, rather self-proclaimed, 'keen eyes'. It's an unconfirmed talent that gets thoroughly tested throughout as the killer's identity continues eludes his best efforts. While Park's commitment to the case is never in question, his approach to would-be suspects (i.e. forced confessions, evidence tampering, and general police brutality and intimidation) acts as a stern reminder to the times to which the film speaks.
Counter to Park's aggressive, sometimes mystic, methods is detective Seo Tae-Yoon, a young man from Seoul who embodies the nation's shift in consciousness as the old socio-political paradigms give way to the new. Seo resembles the modern detective; one who pays close attention to detail, police procedures, and demonstrates a political correctness that modern viewers will be all too familiar with. Park and Seo are in open conflict throughout the majority of the film, and it is their abrasive relationship that forms the spine of Bong's retelling.
"Memories of Murder" contains a sharp political edge that is both unavoidable and integral to understanding Park and Seo's hunt for the elusive killer. All through the movie there are signs of the country's unstable socio-political climate, and an interesting glorification of America and their position at the time as a world superpower. On a number of occasions the country's air raid sirens go off, reminding all citizens to keep off the street and turn their lights off in preparation for a potential aerial attack. There are also scenes of riots in the streets and at one point the chief of police requests for more manpower to prevent another murder is denied due to more civil unrest in the city of Suwon. These and other period specific happenings continually accent events, but while such political signifiers largely occur in the background, issues of gender politics, for example, come flooding forward and without much warning.
The fairer sex is portrayed in a rather interesting light, one that flickers from the firm patriarchal posturing of the times, as well as a sense of empowerment and patience for the future that is to come. This is best illustrated through Park's loving and supportive wife (who consoles and comforts Park throughout), and the police department's only female officer Kwon Kwi-Ok (Ko Seo-hee). Kwon is treated more like a secretary around the office, constantly being order around and doing menial tasks such as making coffee and boring administrative errands. However, Kwon remains composed in the face of such cringe-worthy discrimination, tactfully rising above her placement and surprises with her bravery and initiative. Such social comments can be found throughout the film and serve as a fascinating retrospective of a watershed period in Korea's history.
In 2006 the statue of limitations on the case expired, closing any further investigation into those horrific murders forever. During the cases active years more than 300,000 police officers were involved, and over 3,000 suspects were questioned without a conviction. Since the real-world case remains unsolved, it seems fitting that Bong's tale should mirror that lack of closure. In the film's final moments, detective Park returns to the scene of the first murder and is caught in his daydream by a young girl. After asking Park what he is doing in such obscure location, she informs him that another man had also come to visit the site. Park, his memory of the crimes now briefly rekindled, asks the girl what the man looked like. The girl is only able to say that he was rather ordinary, possessing no distinctive features that would make him standout in a crowd. This is the last scent of the killer Park is to have, but it is as insubstantial as all the other leads he once followed years before. Upon hearing this, Park does something rather unusual and deeply disconcerting for the spectators. He turns and looks directly into the camera, starring with his piercing keen eyes as if the killer himself was sitting right there in the audience with us.
- C.J. Wheeler (@KoreaOnTheCouch)
Available on DVD and Blu-ray from YESASIA and Amazon
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