Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok)

By Chris McLaughlin

Memories of Murder is a detective film based around the true story of the rape and murder of ten women over a six year period from 1986 to 1991. The work of a serial killer, the first in South Korea's history, the murders caused women to stay indoors after dark in fear of their lives for years, and the mystery surrounding these crimes remains to this day.

The film opens with a child catching locusts in a field who discovers the detectives discovering a body, innocence standing before monstrosity. In the stunning rural setting, the juxtaposition of the naive against the horrific is a striking representation of the loss of innocence that the country as a whole underwent when these murders began. The cinematography is excellent throughout, sometimes reminiscent of the Japanese samurai or equivalent American western genres using the landscape as a character in itself.

One of the reasons that this film is enthralling viewing is the wonderful way the plot unfolds along two separate yet parallel strands: first, there is the progression of killings, growing increasingly vicious and twisted in true thriller fashion. Then there are the intertwining stories of the bumbling country cop Park Doo-Man (Song Kang Ho) and cerebral big city detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung) brought in from the Seoul force to crack the case, characters who add true compassion to the film. Park has to deal with the crimes, the likes of which he has never seen, and Seo has to face the utter hopelessness of the lack of resources required to effectively protect the population and bring the killer to justice. Park slowly realizes he cannot just beat his way to the killer and Seo, that the lack of resources at his disposal renders his methods unusable. Antagonistic at first through differing ideologies they slowly morph into one another, and there is a wonderful scene where they both lie with their heads on the same desk, agreed at the utter frustration of their lives. In this one moment of desolate harmony their characters attain the same level, partnered in despair, before they continue their respective mirror-image journeys, each moving towards the point where the other started. Special mention in the excellent supporting cast should go to Kim Rwe-Ha as dectective Cho Yong-Koo who comes straight from the pit-bull school of law enforcement, tackling every interrogation feet first and with a blur of fists.

One of the great triumphs of this film is its ability to place the terrible alongside the frankly ludicrous without losing the impact of either. We are left in little doubt as to how we are supposed to view the police: officers fall down embankments and completely rearrange the crime area before the forensics team arrives. At one stage a farmer is allowed to drive his tractor through the middle of the investigation destroying the footprints which lead away from the scene. But the comedy seems somehow to float above the unfolding story, without lessening the burden of the dark themes ever stalking about in the shadows. You have to acknowledge the skill of a director who manages to show police brutality as a terrible institutional method at the same time as being amusing from a purely slapstick viewpoint. This film is both genuinely disturbing and genuinely funny, often at the same time.

It must also be viewed as a satiric comment on life in South Korea during the 80s. Park's girlfriend, a part time unofficial healthcare worker, gives illegally prescribed medication to villagers who cannot go to the hospitals. Sirens announce the curfew for all citizens, wailing out the military government's attempts to suppress communism. The infrastructure of the country is very deliberately shown as failing, and the inability of the police to cope with this new breed of killer is an echo of the country's inability to cope with its new circumstances. It is a jolt into the modern world for a country where the police in their desperation erected a scarecrow at the crime scene with the notice 'turn yourself in, or else your limbs will rot and you will die'. A horse and cart moving into the world's petrol-driven thoroughfares.

Memories of Murder, the second feature from director Bong Joon-Ho (director of Barking Dogs Never Bite) deservedly won the Silver Shell award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. It combines aspects of the traditional detective genre with something subtle and more subversive: few have achieved this delicate balance that allows the film to be accessible to a wide audience, but still challenges the viewer's sensibilities and hints at something more sinister hidden beneath.
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