Social problems in Hwaseong 1986-1991 (Memories of Murder Bong Joon Ho, S Korea, 2003)


Memories of Murder (2003)
‘The worst of them will stay with you ... forever’

Through the cold eye of history, director Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder looks back on the turbulent years of the mid-eighties — before the successful democratisation movement which peaked in 1987 — to an era of tight authoritarian control under Chun Doo Hwan’s Fifth Republic. It is a remarkable serial killer/police procedural which highlights the failure of military rule, a failure of such monumental proportions that countrywide civil-defence orders and gas attack drills are not only common domestic policy, but, when combined with a governmental emphasis on discipline and flag-waving unity to support national security, actually function as a drain on state resources. The investigation of a serial rapist and murderer in Gyeonggi Province attracts plenty of media attention and public scrutiny — at times of national crisis all eyes fall on the state — yet a government which is seen to be justifiably redirecting state resources away from a police investigation on to clashes with an angry disillusioned student body does at least escape the charge that it may in fact be powerless and doing nothing. The gesture, however, is futile and the images of scrappy skirmishes and brutality in the streets merely conveys the domination, aggression and failures of South Korea’s militarist patriarchs.

Detectives Park Du-Man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) in Memories of Murder (2003)

Memories of Murder thematises this position and follows the point through. The narrative seems to ask if, as viewers, we think it is worth the risk — this struggle to free society from the grip of militant governmental control. It’s tempting to say that, via the shifting perceptions of its central protagonists, Memories of Murder absolutely believes the cause and result were worth fighting for now that South Korea has broken out of its ideological prison. But while Bong’s film certainly doesn’t support a line of argument that might suggest the country was better off under a censorial authoritarian regime, the ugly question remains: why don’t things ever get any better?

The first half of the film concerns the failures of the authorities in Gyeonggi province. The narrative critiques the criminal investigative and interrogative methods (all devious, disgraceful, and wildly unlawful) practised by local celebrity detectives Park Du-Man (Song Kang-ho) and his thuggish partner Jo Yeong-gu (Kim Roi-ha). These scenes are deeply unsettling, and none more so than the appalling discovery in open field of the second murder victim. In this sequence a flustered Detective Park battles to impose a system of order on a crime scene beset by natural hazards and miscommunication. The point of the scene really isn’t to understand what is being said but how it is being said, who is listening, and why no-one seems to be doing anything at all about it: as Detective Park runs back and forth between his superiors and his support team, he yells at an incompetent forensics crew for their late arrival whilst simultaneously trying to rein in the crafty little ferret children that dash across his path; he then scurries back over to a vital piece of evidence, which is destroyed by a tractor, to yell (once again) at another half-awake, wet-behind-the-ears local policeman. We would applaud the choreography of the scene, which lasts just under two wonderful minutes, if it weren’t for the sorry fact that a dead woman lies in the field, her body half-naked, muddied, abandoned. If nothing else, the sadness of that grisly but innocuous reveal is enough to mitigate any enjoyment aroused by the spectacle; it is all the more damaging given that the “policing” of the scene is just such a disaster.

We would applaud the choreography of the scene, which lasts just under two wonderful minutes, were it not for the sorry fact that a dead woman lies in the field, her body half-naked, muddied, abandoned. If nothing else, the sadness of that grisly but innocuous reveal is enough to mitigate any enjoyment aroused by the spectacle

Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) in Memories of Murder (2003)

The atmosphere of incompetence is lifted by the introduction of educated city detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung); and though his more considered approach conflicts with the aggressive patriarchal leadership of Detective Park, the political and personal tensions between them are offset by the exhaustive efforts and surprising growing efficiency of the police and forensics community itself. In this sense, it would seem that the pairing of Park with the wiser Seo anticipates the country’s transition from authoritarian rule towards early 90s democratisation and globalisation. Yet the promise of a new intelligent leadership is surprisingly dashed when the film’s darker second half sets in. Ultimately only we, the audience, can sympathetically identify with their unending struggle; only we recognise the value of the developing bond between the two detectives and determine its importance.

Director Bong realises this point desperately well in the film’s simmering conclusion and coda, the latter set in 2003, which dispels outright the myth of the magical and cathartic final encounter between hunter and hunted. All we can really ask of the film, by this point, is for a semblance of hope: one day justice will be restored righteously. And in the final shot of the film, I swear I can read into Song Kang-ho’s solemn face the traumatic past of a country, its irreconcilable present, and the vexing question that if life can be yanked away at any moment for no apparent reason is life therefore worth anything at all?
30 June, 2007

Detective Park Du-Man (Song Kang-ho) in the film’s desperately sad end coda


Ivo said...

This is definitely the BEST review of this film I have seen so far. Since seeing the film I have developed something of an interest in this case and this is so far the only review that seriously tries to understand the film instead of giving the standard "this is the film bla bla" review with all the tricks etc that came with making the film. And yes, you are right: that final scene is one of the strongest I have seen in quite some time in any film.

ian said...

Thank you for leaving such a cool comment, Ivo! :)

It is a remarkable film on a stand-alone basis, and I hope also mightily significant for Korean national cinema more specifically. I don't know (coming at it from my perspective) how seriously it's taken in film studies either - there don't seem to be any papers on it in reasonably high-profile books like New Korean Cinema, or The Remasculinisation of Korean Cinema ... which I feel is a stunningly poor oversight on their part, given the traumatic sociopolitical changes driving the film, but also the intensely private scenes which are so charged with hope for the characters. I know, for instance, that Kyung Hyun Kim has written on this idea of Korea's struggle to find a national identity after authoritarian rule, and he's interested in who and what the country is now producing (the salaryman? The dominant bread-winner?). And I think the film, even on the strength of the short final scene, tells us so much about Korea's historical trajectory - a salaryman, a slave to his mobile, on the road, deluding himself almost that he is in control of his family, of his family's future. So, yeah, here's a film that, on the face of it, looks like it is following in the path of Hollywood with a formulaic thriller, and yet Bong pulls it off in such an innovative and devoted way... And that final shot of Song Kang-ho still rocks, it's just awesome, man.

If your 'interest in the case' takes you in the direction of a self-authored review or paper (nay, book even!) on the subject, be sure to drop me a link - I'd be most interested. Take it easy.

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