When David Fincher’s “Zodiac”(2007) was released at South Korean theaters in August 2007, it was immediately compared to one famous South Korean film by me and other audiences. That movie was also based on the infamous serial killing case still remained unsolved to this day, and it is also about the desperation, frustration, and obsession of the people who wanted to find the man behind these horrific killings.
But comparing Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder”(2003) to “Zodiac” is akin to comparing tangerine to grape fruit. While both share some common elements as the well-made investigation drama with the vivid recreation of the bygone era, both are a lot different from each other in many aspects. While “Zodiac” firmly looks at the Zodiac case itself, “Memories of Murder” uses the fictional story inspired by its serial killing case as the window to the South Korean society during the 1980s, the era when lots of infuriating injustices and accompanying brutal violence were committed under the military dictatorship.
Even though I was very young at that time, I remember several things about the Hwaseong serial killing case because it was always hot news on TV whenever someone was found murdered. Between 1986 and 1991, 10 women at various ages were savagely raped and murdered in the Hwaseong area in Gyeonggi Province. Around 1.8 million of policemen were put into the investigation, and around 3,000 suspects were questioned, but there wasn’t any breakthrough in the investigation even when the last murder happened. The identity of the killer is still in mystery even after more than 20 years(One guy was actually caught and confessed his crime, but it turned out that he was merely a copycat killer), and it is only assumed that he is currently dead or imprisoned for the other crime.
Beginning with one peaceful sunny autumn afternoon hovering over the field filled with the waves of golden rice paddy ready for the harvest, the movie shows us how this serial killing case throws the ominous shadow over one quiet country town. While the children are playing around the field, one tractor comes along the road. They cheerfully follow it, and the guy at the back of tractor responds to these joyful kids in a funny way. The tractor is stopped at one point, and the farmer shows what he found in the drainage ditch to the guy who comes along with him. There is a dead woman who was bound and then murdered, and it seems her corpse was ditched there several days ago.
For the local detective Park Doo-Man(Song Kang-ho), it initially looks like an easy murder case. He gathers some possible suspects and questions them as usual, though he does not get any useful clue. Soon, the second victim is found in the same area under the similar circumstance. Now it is no more a simple crime case to him and his colleagues, and everyone in the station becomes frantic. In one memorable long-take sequence shot with the deft steady cam operation and precise comic timing, the camera moves around the crime scene along with Doo-man to show us how inept he and others are for their task. This is absurd and hilarious; there is nobody to prevent the people from ruining the crime scene(we even see the children running freely across the scene), and even the important evidence found on the road is destroyed by negligence no less than 2 minutes after it is found.
Anyway, Doo-man and others search for possible suspects, and they find one suitable suspect. He is a mentally retarded guy well known in the town, and it does not matter to the detectives much whether he is really guilty or not. Their No.1 priority is calming down the disturbance in the town and closing the case as soon as possible, so they arrest that poor helpless guy and take him to the drab boiler room/interrogation room at the basement of the police station. All they have to do is alternatively intimidating and cajoling him while feeding the details inside his head for extracting a ‘full confession’. The South Korean police were more or less than one of the swords owned by the military dictatorship during that time, and, if they wanted, it was a piece of cake to them to turn into you a criminal or, in a worse case, a North Korean spy with their ‘arrest and squeeze’ method. If there was a will, there were always many, many ways ready for them and they gladly used them.
The movie finds its black humor in their brutality as well as their ineptness in the investigation. In case of Doo-man’s hot-tempered bullying partner Cho Young-Koo(Kim Roi-ha), his military boots come first instead of his fists when he confronts the suspect to be interrogated. Not so long after that, he and Doo-man and the suspect happily watch their favorite TV show “The Chief Detective”(it is a sort of South Korean version of “Law & Order”) together while eating Chinese food delivered to them. Later, they take that poor guy to the mountain forest and threaten to bury him alive – they even force him to dig the ground.
The detective Seo Tae-Yoon(Kim Sang-kyeong), an urban cop dispatched to the town from Seoul, is none too pleased about this method. He believes in the evidences(“The documents never lie”, he says) rather than forced confession, and he tries to solve the case with several puzzle pieces thrown to them. He recognizes the patterns in the murder cases, so he discovers there is another victim. With the small help from one policewoman(Ko Seo-hee), he also gets another crucial clue to the identity of the killer. Somebody requested the specific song to one evening radio music program whenever the murder was about to happen. Is it just the coincidence, or the insidious prelude for murder?
Loosely based on Kim Gwang-rim‘s stage play “Come to See Me”, the director/co-writer Bong Joon-ho made a superb country thriller depending on the mood and atmosphere. With its stunning cinematography, the scenes are filled with the unique feeling of the specific time and place along with the subtle sense of uneasiness. I could appreciate its painstaking details on the screen while being immersed into its world. When I revisited the movie recently, I saw a small can of ointment, and it was the same brand my mother and others used when I got hurt. And I can also assure you that the car named “Maepsy” was actually produced during that time(If my guess is correct, it means “stylishness” in Korean, by the way).
The movie gives us one of the most vivid recreations of South Korean country town during the 1980s. If you want to know what I witnessed in my grandmother’s hometown during my childhood, this film can be a good guide for you. Although my grandmother’s hometown is in a different area(it is the Jeong-eup area in Jeonla province, far south to the Hawseong area), the town is also located near the wide field area covered with rice paddies. Her neighbours had the houses similar to the ones shown in the movie, and I recognized the same of kind of alleys and fences during one chase sequence. The movie was actually shot in various locations here and there in South Korea, but you can believe that everything in the film happens around one town.
With this wonderfully recreated background, the movie plays us like piano in its slow but steady pace. While there is offbeat comedy generated from its colorful characters, there is also dark thriller revolving around the horrific incidents. You are amused for a while, and then you realize that something horrible can happen. The small unidentified figure merely rising from the rice paddy and then slowly disappearing below at the corner of the screen is frightening enough to chill your spine. Even when you are sure something will happen, the movie slaps you with a devastating surprise. The murders keep happening, and the autopsy scenes reveal the more twisted side of the killer, who starts doing vile things to the victims’ bodies as if he were mocking the cops chasing after him.
The center of the story is the dynamic relationship between two contrasting cop who eventually find the common ground in their investigation. Their respective methods clash with each other a lot at first, and they naturally do not like each other much, but they are gradually linked by their mutual obsession toward the case. Both want to catch the guy so desperately, but they find themselves kept inhibited by the limits put upon them as well as their own limits. They have never encountered such a case like that before, and there are not enough evidences to help their investigation. DNA analysis of a semen sample luckily found in one crime scene was surely possible in the 1980s, so it can be a strong evidence to identify the killer, but the equipment is not available inside South Korea – they have to wait until the analysis result is delivered from US.
They are also frustrated by the system they belong to, and the movie slyly throws the critical comment on the South Korean society during the 1980s. When they urgently call for the additional forces for preventing another murder about to happen, the headquarter replies that they are not available because they are all busy with suppressing a big student demonstration protesting against the dictatorship in the nearby city. In one sad, emotionally-shattering scene, we see the town going through the routine civil defense drill. The people go inside and close the door and turn off the light. The town becomes completely silent. And another tragedy is going to happen nearby. Behind the restrained handling of this terrible moment, you can feel the quiet, sorrowful anger toward the society which has frequently failed to protect its individuals while only caring about maintaining and protecting itself. This tendency has not yet gone away even in these days; South Korean people were recently shocked by the news about the policemen casually ignoring the desperate call from a woman in danger, who was later found brutally murdered(at least, the murderer was arrested in this case).
The movie has the terrific ensemble. Even though you are not familiar with most of the performers, their characters are not easy to forget. While we are watching their struggle closely and intimately, the detectives in the film are revealed as the characters free from the expected conventions thanks to the lively performances from the main actors. Song Kang-ho, who had just established as one of the leading South Korean actor around that time through several notable films including Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”(2002), plays Doo-man as a plain country guy tasked with the job way over his head. Doo-man is certainly not the brightest bulb in his station, but there are the times when his eyes and instinct work, especially when he and others have to find a runaway suspect among the men wearing the same work uniform at the quarry. Song Kang-ho always has the likable presence in his films while never reaching for the effect, and that quality works well in the film; you may not like what Doo-man does for extracting confession, but you cannot help but like this carefree guy who begins to realize what kind of labyrinth he is put into.
While Song’s easy-going performance holds the ground in the middle, his co-actor Kim Sang-Kyeong’s performance effectively swings from one side to the other side as the cop who is more reasonable than his peers but becomes slowly unhinged by frustration and helplessness. As Man-soo’s volatile partner, Cho Yong-koo is pretty repulsive at times, but you feel a little sorry for him while appreciating some kind of poetic/karmic justice done to him in the end. Byeon Hee-bong is their ineffectual chief, and Song Jae-ho is a sterner successor who also equally struggles with the case, and Ko Seo-hee is a policewoman whose intelligence deserves better than how she is regarded by male cops.
The other supporting performers are believable as the country people living during the 1980s, but the special mention must go the three actors who play the prime suspects. As a mentally retarded character who turns out to be more crucial in the case, Park No-sik steals the show while evoking both pity and impatience from the audiences. Ryoo Tae-ho, who originally played all of three suspects in the stage play, is impressive as the second suspect with the understandable private perversion. The wild card of the film is Park Hae-ill, who gives a good ‘closed book’ performance as a suspicious young man. All the circumstantial evidences are pointing toward him – but is it possible that he is just a defiant young man uncooperative with the intimidating cop in front of him?
Though it was only his second work, “Memories of Murder” quickly put the director Bong Joon-ho in the list of the prominent South Korean filmmakers. The movie shows his talent in full command. The scenes are carefully planned and executed, and the storytelling is masterful in tuning the ratio of humor and suspense to engage us. Bong has made four films so far, and all of them are interesting works. His first movie, “Barking Dogs Never Bite” (2000), is a quirky black comedy which will make some dog owners cringe as much as, say, “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988). “The Host”(2006) is not your typical monster movie but an eclectic cross between B-monster movies and a dysfunctional family drama seasoned with sly political commentary. His latest work, “Mother” (2009) is another country thriller reminding us that there is still a dark corner in police stations where unpleasant things can happen.
Though it is freer than “Zodiac” because it is a fictional story with a real-life background, “Memories of Murder” finds its own satisfying way of finishing its story while being true to the case left unclosed. There is a “climax” scene, which is neither a resolution nor a conclusion. The characters have to recognize what cannot be changed, and another moment of frustration resonates in the darkness in front of them while one possible lead is walking away from them.
And then the movie moves to a seemingly unnecessary epilogue sequence which turns out to be one of the most haunting closing scenes in my memory. The time has passed, and Hwaseong is more urbanized than before as one of the satellite cities surrounding Seoul, and one character coincidentally comes across one of the places in his memory. It feels sentimental at first, but, in the end, he and we are chillingly reminded that the memories of murder never leave him and others. And neither do the memories of that violent era.
1. 2003 was a great year for South Korean audiences. Along with “Memories of Murder”, we had “Oldboy”, an operatic no-holds-barred revenge film by Park Chan-wook, and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”, a beautiful masterwork by Kim Ki-duk, and that odd cult SF film “Save the Green Planet!” by Jang Joon-hwan. All of them are currently available at Amazon.com.
2. Bong Joon-ho is currently working on his new movie “Snowpiecer”, set to be released in the next year. This time, while collaborating with Song Kang-ho again, he is working with the actors more familiar to you, including Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, and Ewen Bremner.
3. I recently watched “Texas Killing Fields”(2011), another country thriller about serial killing case which has everything it needs to be at least half as good as “Memories of Murder”. It surely has the good mood and the good actors, but it seriously lacks an engaging story, so it ultimately disappointed me a lot.