Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Written: Bong Joon-ho, Kwang-rim Kim, Sung Bo Shim
Country: South Korea
After viewing the movie the first time I was not sure what to make of it. Memories of it kept coming back to me as if trying to solve a riddle. It happens with those carefully crafted films that place symbols with a masterful precision to tell a multilayered story. “Memories of Murder” was telling something more than I initially could comprehend and I went on researching it. And what a journey it was, revealing a part of Korean history I was not very familiar with and placing the movie in a cultural, historical and psycho-historical context. This review contains spoilers, therefore I recommend watching the movie first.
The story starts in the peaceful fields of a rural town in South Korea. A boy is catching grasshoppers, but his attention is quickly captured by a far sound of a tractor. On the back of the tractor an indistinctive man is smoking a cigarette and trying to shoo away the children who are chasing them, shouting “Junk car!” The tractor stops at a drain ditch and the man bends to look into it. As camera moves back we see what he sees – a naked female body, tied up, covered with bugs, starting to decompose. The chilling contrast of the tranquil surrounding and decomposing body sets the mood for the whole film. We follow this man, our main character detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song), back to the police office and witness his flimsy investigation.
However, Doo-man is not a stereotypical “funny loser cop”, everybody else in the station are shown as incompetent, with constant chaos at the station and the crime scene. This movie has a lot of such ironic, parody-like scenes that look like a more sophisticated version of Charlie Chaplin’s or Benny Hill’s policemen. However, the director Bong Joon-ho doesn’t let the movie slide too much into comedy, balancing it out with horrific realism that gets more and more intense towards the end of the movie. Such mixture of genres is not uncommon in Korean film: Park Chan-wook’s “The Vengeance Trology”, Bong Joon-ho’s later film “The Host”, sci-fi “Save the Green Planet” to mention a few. In this sense “Memories of Murder” is an exemplary piece of
certain and very recent trend in South Korean, namely the process of using multiple genres within the same narrative and successfully creating post-modem and accomplished works of entertainment whose main focus is to deal with certain sociological and historical issues. (Source: Modern Korean Cinema)
The most unsettling part while watching the film was how unconcerned the police force and people seem to be about the victim. People are curious onlookers, children are playing around in the crime scene with a corpse laying there and the police chief is only thinking about the media portrayal of the story. You might expect that in a big urban city, but not from a rural area. Here people actually know the victim and the murderer is likely somewhere very near. However, everybody seems desensitized about the happenings.
To close the case as quickly as possible, the detective follows the first lead he randomly gets. He arrests a mentally retarded boy of the village, who was said to follow the victim around. With the help of his fellow policeman Cho Young-Koo (Kim Roi-ha) they torture the poor boy in an attempt to extract a confession. Young-koo plays an extremely bad cop, with a mindless, genuine rage and pleasure in beating people. They do extract the confession and parade the “killer” in front of people and cameras, to reenact the crime. His angry father interrupts this fool’s parade revealing the lies of the police to the unsurprised public. The investigation halts again.
Meanwhile, a detective from Seoul shows up to help the provincial policemen with the case. Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyeong) is calm, competent and professional. He stands aside watching Doo-man’s methods, often smoking a cigarette or researching some documents in the background. He makes some breakthroughs in the case, enraging Doo-man, whose authority and ability is being demeaned in the process. Doo-man tries to pick on and fight with Tae-yoon at every instance. In contrast he looks even more comical than before. At this point the viewer would expect that Tae-yoon will be the hero who saves the day, eventually solving the crime and making friends with Doo-man. However, this is not the case.
Further investigation leads to dead ends and Tae-yoon gets more and more frustrated. He is a competent detective from Seoul, trained to do this – he himself is surprised and infuriated that his system doesn’t work. Director Bong does play with the expectations that viewers are used to have from Hollywood films. For example, in the beginning Doo-man explains to his sergeant that he has a “shaman’s eye” and when looking at suspect pictures he will eventually instinctively know the real killer. This is a notion that detectives have certain superhuman ability, like the Sherlock Holmes myth, that will naturally let them solve the crime. However, he does not have any special powers, just some occasional insights.
Another scene was in the middle of the movie, when detectives return to a crime scene after another halt during the investigation. Doo-man and the bad cop Young-koo are performing a spell bought from a local shaman-woman, to reveal the killer’s face. They hide when they hear someone coming up. Detective Tae-yoon, shows up, he lights up a cigarette, listening to the melody that supposedly the killer plays before every murder. Doo-man quietly ridicules Tae-yoon’s methods of investigation (shamefully aware of his own unconventional method), but Young-koo replies: “Still, he’s got the style”. As Pierce Conran explains:
Bong is making light of the proclivity exhibited by Hollywood thrillers of mostly favoring style over substance. Bong injects a great deal of substance into his “generic” narrative but he utilizes the codes so well that he can make fun of the material while also using it to its fullest potential. (Source: Modern Korean Cinema)
While in the end Doo-man and Tae-yoon do in some way have a reversal of their characters and end up somewhat cooperating, they do not become buddies. Actually, we are not even told what happens to Tae-yoon after the events. Their relationship is not the focus of the movie. What director Bong delivers is truly not a “Rush Hour”, “Starsky & Hutch” type of Buddy Cop film, though, as mentioned, he does play with this expectation from the audience. Director Bong explains his “lovable loser” characters in interview with Cineaste magazine:
It’s like an obsession with me. I like putting these characters in impossible situations that they can’t deal with. That’s what makes powerful drama. When you have a superhero going on a mission, the outcome is too predictable. If you’ve seen my films, whether it’s these losers going against a serial killer or against a creature, it’s the same structure. I think through those characters I can differentiate myself from Hollywood genres. Korean audiences are very used to watching a Hollywood superhero. In Korean films they want someone they can relate to. (Source: Cineaste)
The actual story of the movie, that directory carefully weaves behind the outer layer of crime thriller, is about the military dictatorship in South Korea in 1980’s. Human rights were undermined daily and societies’ mistrust and dissatisfaction with the government grew immensely. The pinnacle gruesome event of the era was the Gwangju massacre, where government military troops killed a lot of civilians, during an uprising for democracy. (Source: Wikipedia) Director Bong sets the movie as a representation of the state of society in those days. Police are capturing and torturing people, townsfolk are apathetic to murders, and anyone who has any authority exerts it with violence and verbal abuse.
Bong does not retell the history of 80’s events, instead he uses more subtle ways, symbols and nuances to craft a memory of the history rather than history itself. Pierce Conran:
Memories is, of course, conceived around the notion of memory. However, it is not the memories of the film’s characters that are important, as we learn nothing of the histories of the film’s central protagonists. Any back story we receive on minor characters is only present to serve as a signifier to a historical moment or to symbolize a collective national trauma. The film is a representation of a national memory of historical traumas. (Source: Modern Korean Cinema)
That is why many meanings of the film might be lost on international audience, seeing only its outer layer of detective crime story. And presumably this is the reason why it became such a box office hit in South Korea, as it was able to touch important subtle feelings of that generation.
Towards the end of the film we see the cycle of events turning around. Detective Tae-yoon is frustrated and wants to implement torture methods on the new suspect, but they are now forbidden to exert violence by their authorities, due to bad publicity. Doo-man is cooperating with Tae-yoon, waiting for DNA test answers that should determine the case. The bad cop Young-koo gets his “stomping leg” amputated after a fighting incident he initiated. Ironically, he got injured by the mentally retarded boy, the first suspect.
The new suspect, Park Hyun-gyu, confronts the corrupt authority:
Even kids in this town know you torture innocent people. Anyway, I won’t be one on them. Never.
This stance makes him a likeable and sympathetic character and the viewer can really waiver questioning his guilt. This feeling is the exact intention of the director, even though the new susperct Hyung-gyu most probably was the killer.
Pierce Conran explains some symbols about the killer in detail:
In terms of turning the lens on Korea there are a couple of elements that identify the killer as a symbol of a generation (a very violent one but perhaps not altogether singular). The man that the narrative identifies to us as the probable suspect is only a recent resident of the area. He came from Kwangju, site of the infamous massacre of innocent civilians by the military. Thus we can assume that this suspect is heavily traumatized and, since he is very young, the massacre was probably the most influential moment of his life. On the day of the massacre, the students and activists who were targeted, many of whom were women, were dressed in red. The killer exclusively strikes victims dressed in red and only in the rain (it rained heavily during the Kwangju massacre). The sight of red sets him into frenzy as he cannot erase the memory from his mind, he can only re-enact it again and again. (Source: Modern Korean Cinema)
After knowing these facts, we can assume Hyung-gyu’s guilt is most likely. The loss of innocence of a whole generation’s psychohistory (too see more about discipline of Psychohistory: Wikipedia) is encoded from the first frames in the film. The little boy who was capturing crickets in a jar witnessed the horrific crime scene. Though Doo-man was trying to shoo him away, the kid only mimicked his words and body language. Mimicking what he was seeing an adult do, could turn his pleasure of capturing and killing crickets into a pleasure of capturing and killing women. We can imagine that our suspect killer Hyung-gyu was once such a kid too.
Just before releasing the suspect Doo-man looks into his eyes looking for the killer in him:
“Fuck, I don’t know. Do you get up each morning too? Go! Just go, fucker!”
From this perspective, “Memories of Murder” is about forgiveness and letting it go. The traumatic experience of the whole generation turned many into killers. Neither society, nor the government knew how to cope with the situation, and never-ending circle of violence. Revenge, pointing fingers, looking for the guilty ones is futile, in such situations of uncertainty, therefore forgiveness and forgetting the movie suggests is a way to heal the trauma. Though forgetting is not easy and thus we have “MEMORIES of Murder”.
The movie comes full circle in the end, showing Doo-man years after the events. Now he is a traveling salesman. He stops at his former hometown and goes to the field where they found the first victim. The day is sunny and beautiful, just like that day in the past. He bends down under the drench – no body there, nothing. As he rises he sees a girl who starts a conversation revealing a chilling fact – recently there was somebody else who was here looking at the same ditch. He explained to the little girl that “He remembered doing something here long ago, so he came back to take a look”. Disturbed, the ex-detective asks her to describe the person. “Kind of plain. Ordinary” – she explains. Doo-man turns to the audience and looks into the camera with a desperate look in his eyes. An unsettling ending that shows that the trauma is still there, the memory is very vivid and the killers were just the “ordinary” people around us. Forgiving and letting it go is not easy and not final.
For viewers who watch “Memories of Murder” as a crime thriller it may just be another pretty good movie. It does require more research to get the full spectrum that this film encompasses and I highly recommend reading Pierce Conran’s ‘Post-traumatic masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema: The revisionist filtering of the male Id through genre in Memories of Murder‘ and Seongyong Cho’s article “South Korean Zodiac”. While “Memories of Murder” is not the top crime film, it is truly a masterpiece of memory film (another exquisite example of the genre is Israeli animated feature “Waltz with Bashir”). It is a milestone in Korean modern film making director Bong Joon-ho a voice of generation lost.
- 24 Asian Movies and TV Shows to Watch on Netflix (Updated) - April 6, 2021
- Permission to Exist – a documentary on South Korea’s education system and mental health awareness among Korean teens - December 15, 2020
- Luang Prabang Film Festival Goes Online - November 2, 2020