The Engrossing Investigation of Korean Republic’s Notorious Serial Killer

Spoilers Ahead

                                           Serial killing has gained enough prominence in the industrialized modern society. Violence might be often quoted as ‘a means to an end’, but serial killing or the aimless predatory jubilance in killing makes an individual to question the pointlessness within an industrialized or mechanized economy. The horrifying fact about serial killers is that they are not monster with fangs; but just a normal inconspicuous human, who has all the social skill to blend with his environment.  American crime fiction writer James Ellroy states: “Serial killers are scary in the moment and as dismissible as an empty box of popcorn”. A majority of movies or novels based on real or fictionalized serial killers tend to charge up the popcorn factor by accumulating gruesome moments or unexpected twists.

                                         Nevertheless, we rarely come across films that try to picture the chaos experienced by the society due to such pointless murders. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) & Shohei Immamura’s “Vengeance is Mine” (1979) are few ‘deep crime’ works that uses serial killings to look into the moral sordidness of modern society and the pervading public hysteria or private madness.  South Korean film-maker Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) belongs alongside the revered ‘deep-crime’ films. The Korean film is based on the series of unsolved sex murders that happened between 1986 and 1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province. Joon-ho’s visual compositions and narrative, on the surface, seems to follow the paradigm of serial killer flicks, but only with repeated viewings we can fully contemplate the director’s subtlety and the way he develops the complex themes.

The Absurdity of Incompetent Men & the Unbridled Social Changes

                                         The foremost surprise in “Memories of Murder” is its protagonist detective Park Doo-Man (Kang-ho Song), who is the exact opposite of what we expect in this kind of investigative thrillers. He is not just incompetent; he plants false evidences, tortures the suspects and meets a shaman to find out the killer’s face. Park’s obedient side-kick, Detective Yang-Koo (Kim Roi-ha) kicks like an action hero and leaves the thinking to his superiors. Apart from these two men, the police chief and the forensic department men also seems to be slothful creatures. The victims, mostly young girls, are found in ditch or in wheat fields, hands bound back, face covered by panties and neck revealing strangulation marks. The 1980’s Korea might not have had the modern, sophisticated methods, but then Park lack the basic detective skill, like securing a crime scene.

                                      The chaos in the crime scene in wonderfully exhibited by Joon-ho’s in a slow tracking shot (after finding the 2nd victim), where media people stamping through the crime scene before forensics’ guys. Park marks the foot-print left out by the killer, which is later rundown by a tractor, driven by a farmer. At one point, we wonder what characteristics got them these detective jobs. Park and Yong-joo was the product of the authoritative society that needs men to pack a punch rather than think. The mid 1980’s in Korea witnessed radical political & social transformation and there were massive demonstrations by university students demanding free elections from the military regime.

                                     The police chief asks for men during a night he is sure that the killer would strike, but he is answered that all men have gone to quell protests (and an innocent victim is killed that night). We also see Yang-goo’s effectiveness as a law official in one brief scene as he drags a university student by holding onto her hair. Policemen dragging the citizens into torture dungeons are a common thing in authoritative regimes. Although “Memories of Murder” isn’t a film about radical student protests or remorseful law-holders, in one vital scene, a fight ensues between Yang-koo and a group of students, which in a way disrupts the investigation and claims a life. The demand for a new, liberalized society plus the purposelessness of the killing only baffles Park & Yang-koo, and so they resort back to what they know: tortures & planting evidences.

The Unforeseeable Transformations

                                      On the surface, Bong Joon-ho’s works – “The Host” (monster movie), “Mother” (mystery/thriller) and “Snowpiercer” (action/thriller) – represents something generic, but these transformations or the ‘blurred line’ is what makes the director’s work more engaging.  The arrival of Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a smart detective from Seoul, brings some sensibility to the investigation. His calm & methodical approach is often mocked by Park, but provides crucial answers to the murders. Tae-yoon would be the perfect protagonist in a police procedural, but this being Joon-ho’s movie transformations always happen with the characters. Seo, the man who believes in the truth shown by documents (“documents never lie”), finds himself tested at a crucial point. The transformation, nevertheless, isn’t the typical good-to-bad sort of thing. Seo as well as the viewers finds themselves emotionally rattled during this transitional, final tunnel sequence, grasping for an elusive answer. The erratic behavior of Seo would be devastating for viewers as the general belief in the end is that chaos pervades over order.  

                                         Park initially comes off as a despicable guy and we wonder why the director chose him to be the protagonist. Although Seo is the face of the investigation, Park seems to be the face of 80’s Korean society. He boasts “My eyes can’t be fooled”, despite the fact that his intuition fails every time. Park’s only attempt to imitate Seo’s methodic approach becomes laughable (the sauna scene). However, as the narrative proceeds, Park comes to terms with his incompetence, arrogance and the largeness of the crime. The fate of Park’s side kick Yang-koo (there is a poetic shot of Park looking at Yang-koo’s cloth-covered shoe), the closeness of his nurse girlfriend  & death of Kwang-ho brings about changes in him, which makes us to see him with empathy.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Visual Excellence and Changing Perspective

                                       Director Bong Jong-ho never allows us to settle with a single point-of-view. At first, from Park’s perspective we see the bodies, then from Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon’s point-of-view, we get to know about the killer’s choice of victim & method. For brief times, we even share the victim’s perspective. We see a woman doing her domestic chores. She seems to have read about the killer as she removes her red overcoat. We follow her torch trails into a dark field, on a rainy night. Eventually, we even get the killer’s perspective, as he stands among the trees in night, choosing between two women as they walk past each other. Towards the end, the killer picks up a high-school kid and goes through her belongings. We see a greased spoon, a geometry box etc and dread creeps into us, hoping that someone would turn up. The killer places his victim in a small hillock, facing the city. In the city, a siren goes off signaling the usual blackout. As the killer starts his gruesome act, the camera observes the shutters coming down in ships & lights gradually going off in the streets. The director places the shot as if the whole city is turning its back on this innocent girl.

                                     In the desolating final tunnel sequence, the suspect walks into the darkness as the viewers’ & detectives’ final hope is extinguished. Joon-ho captures the exhausted detectives from the inside of tunnel. The shot is ironic, since the detectives, whom we think would provide ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, itself stand & shrouded by elusiveness and grimness.  Some of the few other images that stayed in my mind includes: Seo standing over a large trash heap, in search of vital evidence (it indicates the enormity of the case, as in the reality, the investigations lead to more than 21,000 suspects); a perv wanking at the murder spot as the torch bobbing up and down from his mouth; forensics men removing the band-aid from the last victim (high school kid) and Seo covering up the girl. 

The Ending & Flawless Performances

                                        The closure of “Memories of Murder” may not be conventionally satisfying but it does get better & better in the repeated viewings. Park, after a long time, gets to the same place, where he found the first victim of vanished perpetrator. A little girl asks what he is seeing and also remembers another man looking at the same place. Park, in his final effort to know about the killer, asks what did he look-like, to which the girl replies “kind of plain. just ordinary”. And Park stares at us with some kind of realization. ‘What did he realize?’ is a question that has stirred debates, but the theory I liked the best was written in the IMDb discussion boards. It stated that Park has finally realized that he was just after a freak or monster or some kind of societal outcasts and at that moment, it finally dawns on him that the killer is a guy, whom you couldn’t easily pick in a crowd.

                                       The dynamics between Park and Seo (city vs rural) was excellently played between Kang-ho Song and Kim. The poker-faced dialogue deliveries & the casual brutality of Park were performed with a remarkable finesse. The director has allowed enough space for the minor characters to develop their presence. No-shik Park is fantastic in his portrayal of the exploited simple-minded Kwang-ho. His anxiety in avoiding the policemen and his eventual fate on the tracks are some of the most affecting portions of the narrative.

                                       “Memories of Murder” (128 minutes) is one of those perfect cinema that uses certain conventional elements to set a new bench-mark for the genre. It is a portrait of a transforming society that contemplates its fears, powerlessness and lack of trust. 


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