Memories of Murder

March, 2007, Thriller

Here’s an idea for a great thriller; follow a real-life serial killer as he terrorizes an entire community and then watch the two policemen assigned to apprehend him follow one false lead after another to an inconclusive conclusion which suggests that real life doesn’t always tie up the loose ends as Hollywood movies typically do… wait, isn’t that an outline of the current hit Zodiac?

Close, but no cigar; it also happens to be the storyline of this 4 year old Korean film by Joon-ho Bong, a highly successful director whose latest movie, a science fiction opus entitled The Host opened this weekend to reverential reviews in The New York Times and The New Yorker. (It’s about a giant tadpole that terrorizes Seoul.)

Often described as Korea’s Steven Spielberg, the director weaves a series of troubling impressions of civil unrest, police brutality and latent violence into this tale, which examines the police handling of that country’s first serial killer in the mid-1980’s. Bong’s capacity for startling imagery opens the film; a gaggle of youngsters saunter down a country road flanked by lush crops. One stops to examine a drainage culvert only to discover, stuffed into it, the body of a young woman who’s been tied, gagged and strangled.

A team of inexperienced detectives assigned to examine the crime scene manages to botch every aspect of the case, which is soon followed by a similar killing and then a third, all with the same modus operandi. The murderer is careful to leave no clues, but that doesn’t prevent the police from arresting the innocent and beating them senseless on the flimsiest hunches. 

As the killings continue, a homicide specialist is dispatched from Seoul to assist in the investigation, but he soon grows as frustrated as his rural colleagues at their inability to find the perpetrator. When blood is found on a victim which promises to finally yield potentially incriminating evidence against the team’s best suspect, a D.N.A. test proves inconclusive… Years pass, the crimes stop and the investigative team moves on.

The film ends where it began; the lead detective, now a middle-aged civilian, stops on the deserted country road seen in the opening scene and once again peers into the culvert, telling a passing child that long ago, something bad happened there which he cannot explain…

This young director has great visual sense; his camera always manages to catch events from angles that carry messages which extend beyond the events he’s displaying and his capacity for juxtaposition blends a rich mixture of social commentary into what is ostensibly a straightforward police procedural. South Korean attitudes towards civil authority, the casual use of torture in criminal investigations, paranoia about their countrymen north of the 38th parallel, rampant sexism in business and government…all these elements are tossed into the stew in such a casual, offhand manner that the audience has no choice but to incorporate them into its overall evaluation of the country’s response to civil violence. Using brutal murders as a device to deliver often highly critical social commentary to a mass audience with in-your-face bravado is a daring move, but Bong pulls it off impressively in this disturbingly visceral film.

The cast, (all unknown here in the U.S.) is uniformly fine and Memories’ production values compare favorably with the best Hollywood movies can offer. At a time when films are growing ever more international in scope, content and reach, it’s frustrating to note that superior examples of genre film-making like this can’t find a wider American audience. (I saw it at an “art-house” theater in Greenwich Village, where it was shown exactly once, on a Monday evening at 9:30 p.m.) Do Americans really find it so difficult to read simply-worded subtitles?

Bong has made four movies, only two of which have been shown here. The other two are also genre films, one a military story involving a secret Korean submarine sent deep into the Pacific with an undocumented crew and the other a horror epic set in Antarctica. Given this director’s obvious talent, wouldn’t it be wonderful if both were available everywhere, at least on DVD?   

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