Bong Joon-ho – “Memories of Murder”
By Justin Waters
With Bong Joon-ho’s latest Palme d’Or winning film “Parasite” opening in theaters. To celebrate I am taking a look back at this wonderfully vibrant director’s earlier works.
October 23, 1986. A young woman’s body is found hidden inside a drainage ditch outside a small province in South Korea. The first of many. The crime scene, shot with a beauty reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, is our opening into a Korean society racked by protests, mismanagement, and corruption. Inspired by the true story of South Korea’s first serial killer it is the start of Bong Joon-ho’s second film and his first masterpiece.
The beauty of the opening scene is soon gone as we enter the bureaucratic world of this small town. Shot in muted greens and blues, the police station, hospitals, and schools all seem to be in a state of disrepair. We find out none of their equipment is state of the art, it is hardly surprising. We meet Detective Park (Song Kang-ho, in his first film with Bong Joon-ho) and Detective Cho (Kim Roe-ha) two local detectives first assigned to the case. Coming from the “boondocks” and without university degrees or proper forensic equipment they rely more on intuition and instinct when catching criminals. Park believes he can “know” a criminal just by looking him in the eye and, once caught, they quickly move to torture in order to secure a confession. The torture is such routine that one of the detectives has a slip cover for his boot to keep it from getting scratched as he kicks a suspect. Their methods will clash with Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) an intelligent man from the bustling metropolis of Seoul who believes in analysis and investigation and has the mantra of “documents never lie”.
In normal hands this would be standard set-up for a buddy cop movie, this is Bong Joon-ho though who shapes genre films with a depth not seen outside of hard hitting, politically minded independent films. On the surface is the hunt for the killer, bubbling underneath is an examination of the type of society that would make it difficult to capture him.
The killer only hunts at night in the rain, from the opening scene on the days always seem to be overcast. Helping hide his deeds are the constant civil defense drills; these include blackouts. Later on we also witness school children undergoing drills in preparation of gas attacks reminiscent of the old duck and cover videos shown throughout cold war era United States, teaching kids that hiding under their school desks was adequate protection from an atomic bomb. Maybe if I were more knowledgeable about Korean history I would know what these drills were in preparation for. The movie never says as it adds to the feeling of dread that permeates this entire town. Later, the Chief of Police will request two platoons of men to help in the investigation only to be told there is not a single man available as all the police are busy quelling student riots. The feeling is of a society mindlessly protecting against hidden enemies while disregarding the very real threats at their doorstep.
The protests begin as small events that color the story and grow into something much more important. We first get a hint of them in a short scene that shows students awaiting the arrival of their “president”. Later we see Detective Cho beating up a young protester as clouds of tear gas pour through the streets. These events seem unimportant early on but come back to haunt the detectives working the case. We learn that nobody trusts the police. And why would they? Their main interactions with them are as government approved thugs mercilessly beating college age boys and girls in the streets. The newspapers cover their breach of civil liberties by holding suspects for days without sufficient cause. Torture is such an embedded part of the police routine that “even the schoolchildren” know about it. As the detectives methods become more honest, their intentions more honorable, they come to realize they are so hated and feared by the citizens they are supposed to protect, nobody believes they are trying to find the killer and not attempting to pin the blame on another innocent man.
It is this part of the movie which resonates the most. Even though Memories of Murder was made about South Korea in 1986, it echoes clearly American law enforcement today. Now with it common knowledge police all over the country are killing people, predominately those victims African American, with little to no punishment under seemingly zero oversight. Though unspeakably tragic, for me it is not the killings themselves, tragic as they are, which cause such unease, it is the superiors overseeing those officers who seem to willfully turn a blind eye to their actions, shuffling officers around to different departments in the same way the Catholic church moves priests accused of pedophilia to different churches, choosing to protect the system over the people the system betrays whom it is supposed to serve. How can we trust a system willfully engaged in such corruption? How can we ever trust that our best interests are being served when these officers are not even properly vetted before being given a gun and a badge to be sent loose on the streets? Memories of Murder doesn’t provide any answers but it does give a saddening glimpse into where this could be headed if things don’t change. Possibly, it is a glimpse into how things already are.
Bong Joon-ho’s humor is his most precious quality; despite such dark and heavy overtones this film is hilarious. Joon-ho manages to combine the eastern filmmaking embrace of tonal inconsistency with classic western genres. Many have tried but none have been nearly as successful. On his second film, Bong Joon-ho created a masterpiece, staking his claim to a wonderfully unique vision.