Serial killing have 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 indirectly reflect on the pointlessness of existence within an industrialized or mechanized economy. The horrifying fact about serial killers is that they are not monsters 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 Perpetual 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 skills, like securing a crime scene.
The chaos in the crime scene was shockingly showcased by Joon-ho through a slow tracking shot (after finding the 2nd victim), where media people stamping through the crime scene before the arrival of forensics professionals. 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. Totalitarian South Korea in the mid 1980s witnessed radical political & social transformation and there were massive demonstrations by university students, demanding free elections and return to true democracy.
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 and Yang-koo. Hence, the duo resort back to what they know: tortures and planting evidences.
The Unforeseeable Transformations
Bong Joon-ho’s works – “The Host” (monster movie), “Mother” (mystery/thriller), and “Snowpiercer” (action/thriller) – often transcends the language and assumptions of genre cinema. Moreover, his well-etched multiple tonalities, especially with regard to character transformations, brings a real profundity to the genre story-line. In Memories of Murder, the arrival of Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a smart detective from Seoul, brings some sensibility to the investigation. His calm and methodical approach is often mocked by Park, but it provides crucial clues about the perpetrator. Tae-yoon would be the protagonist in a typical police procedural, but this being Joon-ho’s movie transformations always happen with the characters. Seo, the man who believes in the truth detailed by documents (“documents never lie”, he repeatedly remarks), 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 while grasping for an answer that remains starkly elusive. The eventual 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 that“My eyes can’t be fooled”, despite the fact that his intuition fails himself and the investigation every time. Park’s only attempt to imitate Seo’s methodical 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 and 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, desperately 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 and lights gradually going off in the streets. Bong Joon-ho captures this as if the whole city is turning its back on this trapped innocent girl.
In the desolating final tunnel sequence, the suspect walks into the darkness as the viewers’ and 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 and are 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 reality the investigations led 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 and Flawless Performances
The closure of “Memories of Murder” may not be conventionally satisfying but it does get better and better in repeat viewings. Park, after a long time, gets to the same place, where he has found the first victim of the uncaught serial-killer. A little girl asks what he is seeing and states that she saw another man looking at the same place. Park, in his final effort to unmask the killer's identity, 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. May be, Park has finally realized that he was after a guy, whom you couldn’t easily pick up in a crowd despite his bragging about 'finding the killer by looking into his eyes'.
The dynamics between Park and Seo (city vs rural) were excellently played out between Kang-ho Song and Kim. The poker-faced dialogue deliveries and the casual brutality of Park were performed with a remarkable finesse. The director has allowed enough space for even 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.