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Memories of Murder

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Posted 30th April 2009 at 09:07 PM by Philleh

Memories of Murder: Death of a Nation’s Innocence.

Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 masterpiece, Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok) may not be held in such high regard with international audiences as, say, Park Chan-wook’s teeth-pulling, hammer-time classic Old Boy; which was released the same year and would go on to earn many, many awards on the international festival-circuit but in its homeland, it was Memories of Murder that was the smash-hit; drawing wayward of five-million admissions and setting a new standard for domestic product.

Universally, we can all relate with a person who has had their life, no matter how repugnant a person they were, from them and has said life turned upside down by their need/desire for vengeance; as is the case with Old Boy’s Oh Dae-su. What we, as a Western audience, can not relate with however – is South Korea in the mid 80’s. In writing this, I hope to bring some understanding, however minimal, to some of the chaos that ensues in Bong Joon-ho’s layered tale of murder; not just of 10 unfortunate women, but that of a country’s innocence.

In 1986, South Korea was ruled under a military dictatorship. It was also classed as a Third World country. Outside of Busan and Seoul, the country was plagued by poverty and desperation of the working class. In the major cities students had begun an uprising and riots had become regular occurrences. With the military caught up in crushing the idealistic youth, the smaller villages were left unguarded; creating the perfect stalking ground for a serial killer – The first recorded in South Korean history. The people of Hwaweong could never have foreseen what was about to happen in their small rural town: neither could the authorities.

Bong Joon-ho introduces us to the beauty of the serene Korean country-side in the opening credits of his movie. As children play and a farmer drives along in his aged machinery, a middle-aged man on the back of the tractor signals a rude-gesture to the children who chase the “junk car”. We are then confronted by the ugly reality of death. A woman’s defiled corpse has been crammed into a near by drainage-duct; the scene of the crime remains open and the children have taken the poor woman’s clothing and are playfully messing with the garments and crime scene.

A lot has been said on the state of South Korea already, within five minutes Joon-ho has conveyed to the audience exactly what they’re getting themselves into and where he is going with his story. The death of innocence is apparent from the get go, this beautiful green/orange country has been violated, the youth, in their naivety, have destroyed a crime scene; not understanding the importance of their act and a jaded older man, of authority, has ‘flipped-the-bird’ at said youth – all these themes will re-occur throughout the movie’s runtime.

Lead investigator, Detective Park (Song Kang-ho), begins interviewing possible suspects. From this montage alone we clearly see what little the police have to go on, not to mention the lack of resources at their disposal, as they interview everyone from ex-boyfriends to businessmen who’re asked if they find a photograph of the deceased attractive (!). Then there’s Park’s unfamiliarity with the functions of a typewriter, comically being helped out by a suspect. We also learn from a discussion between Detective Park and his superior, Sergeant Koo (Byeon Hie-bong) that Park believes that he’ll be able to identify the killer via an almost supernatural sense that locates evil and criminality in his fellow man by looks alone. He’s also not above beating a confession out of a retarded young-man after some village hearsay; however he leaves the real brutality to his uneducated and fly-kicking partner Detective Cho (Kim Row-ha).

Upon the discovery of another corpse, a detective from Seoul is sent to take over the investigation; bringing some much needed city-brain to the country-brawn that is running rife through the force. Detective Seo (Kim San-kyung) is mistaken by Park to be a rapist while attempting to help a nervous woman out of a ditch after she falls in when he asks her some much need guidance. When Seo asks “How can” Park “have such a bad eye for a criminal?” he is introduced to the country style of law and order as Park plants a shoe mark (belonging to the retarded suspect) in the mud, near the latest crime-scene. The real foot print however was lost due to lack of control on the scene, thanks to the unqualified and unprepared police; resulting in a tractor running over the only evidence – much to the irritation of Park.

With these three, very different, detectives working on the same puzzle; Bong Joon-ho has established the three class bases in Korea at this time, the uneducated, the working class and the higher class. The uneducated is loyal, brutal and a follower who aspires to the working class; the working class is resentful of the higher class for the benefits given to them; but grounded and open to collaboration; the elite is self-assured, smug and determined. One could go deeper into the character representation of Park and Soe; seeing them as two types of protesters who took to the streets to overthrow the dictatorships of presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roe Tae-woo and the killer representing the social ills that tormented the country during this period and the deeds of the presidents themselves. The only difference here is that the working class and the students (upper class) were successful in their protests to over throw the tyrants, unlike the investigators who never caught their man.

As the case continues and the frustrations reach fever-pitch, an embarrassing recreation of the latest murder, in front of the media, proves the police force as clueless as they were at the beginning of the case. As the agents become more and more desperate, new methods are introduced. Park seeks the advice of a shaman, who promises the answer will come if they perform a ritual at the crime scene and Soe takes to the crime scene with a tape recorder of a song known to play on the local radio station, by request, on the night of the murders – method police, if you will. It’s interesting to note that Korean culture at the time was highly superstitious; businessmen would visit clairvoyants when seeking advice on future business ventures. During the actual police investigation a shaman suggested that they re-locate the front-gate of the police station in order to reveal the killers identity. They did. It didn’t.

Where Bong really brings home the message that this whole case was destined to fail is in the scene in which Soe is working late in the police office, an air-raid siren rings out demanding that all electrical implements be turned off, no lights are to be lit and everyone is to remain in doors. This scene, coupled with the scene in which all police are called to a near-by riot to help the military break a crowd of students, using violence of course, really highlight what the force was up against on top of this new kind of criminal behaviour bringing a level of violence unseen by even the most educated of officers – chiefly, the big-city university student.

As bleak as it all sounds so far, Bong is never far away from wry humour; be it pitch-black or borderline slapstick in its execution, it all glues into the overall picture flawlessly. Scenes of Park searching bath houses for men lacking in the pubis department or scenes of a male police officer dressing up as a female for the sake of a media re-creation all flow in seamlessly with scenes of decomposed corpses, police brutality and a man masturbating over women’s under wear! Memories of Murder is a film like no other, yet it hasn't received the acclaim it so rightly deserves. Beating films like Zodiac to the punch by a couple of years, it remains criminally under-looked by World Cinema fans and by critics in general. To say that this is one of the greatest films of the 21st Century is an understatement.

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