For somebody who has become a self-proclaimed academic on South Korean cinema, it has been quite awhile since I have reviewed or even watched anything from the country, which led me to dive into Memories of Murder, an early offering from one of my favorite South Korean directors Bong Joon-ho, probably best known for his massively realized monster movie The Host, if not for his spastic and cinematic Mother. The later, as well as Memories of Murder, focus heavily on violent crimes and catching the culprits, however, where Bong avoids reality and grounding in his later work he seems completely at ease with depicting an uncomfortable amount of realness in his early work. Memories of Murder is wickedly funny, while never failing to remind viewers that rape and murder are real acts, often, if not always, leading to the untimely death of those attacked, in this case every one being woman. Bong is such a stellar director that even when noting that the film is based on true events, he manages to create such a gripping and melodramatic narrative that it is hard not to get lost in the spectacle and execution of the film, its elaborate nature and seemingly layered element of deception cause viewers to justifiably assume the work to be entirely fiction. However, one may feel about the events depicted in the film, or whether Bong was even justified in portraying such freshly given wounds on screen, one cannot deny the means with which he uses this narrative to paint a picture of divides in Korea that still haunt the continually progressing nation. Set, for the most part, in 1986, the film represents a rural area of South Korea, clearly affected by colonization, but not via a physical presence. Bong, in Memories of Murder, creates a film that contests notions of identity and assumed privilege, particularly as it relates to notions of masculinity, age and education. So very realized is this film, that one often has trouble situating its time period, as it is clearly not intended to visually represent contemporary Korea, yet the visual realm is not archaic either, instead existing in some area of transcendent cinematic space where metaphor and meaning are undoubtedly universal.
Memories of Murder begins, as should be no surprise, with the discovery of yet another raped and murdered body, in what has become a string of violent attacks in a rural South Korean community. The main figure in the investigation proves to be Detective Park (Kang-ho Song) a traditionalist as far as detective work goes, although he is not adverse to twisting the words of suspects to assure the moving along of his investigations. Park's partner Detective Cho (Roe-ha Kim) on the other hand seems to resort to violence at the flip of a hat, assuming that he can beat a confession out of any person he assumes to be guilty. There wily tactics yield little results, mostly because they lack proper higher police education, which leads to the calling in of a Seoul based detective named Detective Seo (Sang-Kyung Kim) whose main objective appears to be linking the crimes into a series of murders enacted by a single serial killer. Seo and Park constantly but heads, mostly as a result of Park's pride and desire to retain an alpha dog status, something Seo's intelligence seems quick to threaten. However, as the clues begin the collect and the dueling detectives realize that one another possess some undeniable investigation skills, they slowly piece together a list of legitimate suspects and even chase down a variety of other criminals in the process. Yet when they come to a standstill as a result of waiting for the FBI, who possess far better technology, to analyze some DNA, another murder occurs, driving Park specifically to chase the assumed culprit down himself. Park, Seo and the assumed criminal meeting an an intense semi-shootout at a train tunnel entrance, only to be forced to let the suspect go when it is shown that they only possess inconclusive evidence. The narrative then moves to the present as Park revisits a crime scene, only to be told by a passing girl that another man had been there only moments earlier, perhaps the killer whose whereabouts remain unknown even today.
It is hard to make any definitive statement about Memories of Murder in regards to critical theory, as so much of Bong's intent is clearly a result of his personal conviction in calling attention to the fact that this killer has yet to face justice. The clear choice of the camera to linger on the beaten and bruised bodies of the victims is an all to visceral call to demand that justice be sought with little rest during the process. Of course, to overanalyze this element of the film would be counterproductive, because the very act of Bong making the film proves this argument valid. Instead, it is far more interesting to consider the way masculinity serves as a point of contention in the film, especially between Park and Seo whose desire to catch the killer seems more to do with selfish pride than with proctoring justice, especially for Park who has his communal identity to maintain. It is then no coincidence that all the victims in the film are women, one's who cannot defend against an intensely aggressive masculine antagonist, ultimately, causing Park and others to serve as saviors to a weaker sex, a problematic underlying issue of internalized oppression invariably emerges. It is also interesting to consider the suspects when reading it through a masculinity critique, as it is clear all of Park and Seo's suspects appear to engage in varying degrees of gender betrayal/transgression, whether it be one culprit who dons women's underwear for sexual gratification, or another suspect whose telling feature is his unusually soft hands, something which is the result of his job in clerical work. The final confrontation of the train emerging from the tunnel as a means of losing their assumed victim then takes a clear phallic meaning as it explodes out of the entrance severing any possibility of apprehending the suspect. Masculine oppression is at the root of crime in this film, however, it is also the barrier that results in a killer never being found, in fact, the only persons who seem to be able to clearly identify the perpetrator are females, unfortunately, their voice in the narrative is relegated or ignored even in the closing moments, a masterful and biting commentary by Bong no doubt.
Key Scene: There is a confrontation between Seo and Park in a karaoke bar in which they are both peeling bananas. The biting nature and satirical composition of this moment hand me bursting at the seams with laughter.
This is certainly one of the premier films in South Korean cinema's history and it is somewhat pricey on Amazon, yet purchasing a copy is well worth the money, it is seriously a spectacular film.