October 20, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Memories of Murder (2003)

by Nick Schager

Memories of Murder

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the new serial-killer thriller Alex Cross.]

Memories of Murder is peppered with close-ups of its characters looking at the camera, their gaze searching and inquisitive, and finding nothing. A precursor of sorts to David Fincher's Zodiac that laces its police procedural with subtle and deep socio-political undercurrents, Bong Joon-ho's second feature is a masterful depiction of men, and of a country, incapable of observing basic truths as well as hidden ones. Founded on what's believed to be South Korea's first-ever serial killer case, Bong's story concerns local cop Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seoul detective Seo's (Kim Sang-kyung) 1986 investigation into rural village murders of women, all of them having been bound, raped, killed and left in storm drains or the reed fields that surround dirt roads. They're the crimes of a methodical fiend who leaves no evidence, and they prove baffling to local law enforcement, who as epitomized by Park and his dim, torture-loving partner Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are a thuggish bunch prone to ineptitude, as shown in a masterful prolonged early tracking shot at a crime scene—in which evidence is trampled by tractors and press, as cops hopelessly flail about—that eerily conveys how systemic incompetence runs wild.

Memories of Murder

Rural-urban tensions initially dominate Park and Seo's rapport, as the former's casual indifference to careful procedure and fondness for literally drop-kicking suspects is contrasted with Seo's dedication to following the rules and using his mind—a conflict that boils over in a comical scene that finds the duo's argument-cum-scuffle at the end of a night of boozing halted by their Chief (Song Jae-ho) vomiting into a bucket. Park and Cho spend the film's first half rounding up suspects and then beating confessions out of two of them, a "retarded" boy (Park No-sik) and a public-masturbation pervert (Ryoo Tae-ho), while Seo (with the help of a female officer) deduces that the killer strikes on nights when it rains and after he's requested a favored pop song from the local radio station. Those latter clues seem promising, and yet Memories of Murder is a film in which the truth is always just out of sight. Thus, even when the police know exactly when their target is next set to strike, they're incapable of stopping him, with phone calls to the radio station to retrieve the killer's request-form card (which would have his address) unsuccessful, and attempts to follow a suspicious factory office worker (Park Hae-ill) stymied by a police car that won't start.

Memories of Murder

At every turn, powerlessness reigns and carnage abounds, both symptoms of a country corrupted by its ruling Chun dictatorship. Bong colors his action's periphery with air raid siren warnings and glimpses (and talk) of hostile political protests in order to subtly suggest that the brutality of both the killer and Park and Cho—and the Chief who, in response to Cho's rough methods, kicks him down a flight of stairs before firing him, which later leads to a vicious restaurant brawl instigated by Cho—have been spawned by a nation damaged by a nasty and cruel government. Memories of Murder is consequently a film about state as much as individual violence. And Park and Seo's slow transformation into the other—with Park coming to see that skirting regulations and manufacturing proof is a fool's game, and Seo increasingly gripped with a desire to engage in unlawful behavior—casts the proceedings as a portrait of countrywide futility, since both detectives' tacks are rendered useless in the face of unsolvable crimes. Regardless of Park's oft-confessed ability to be able to deduce guilt simply from looking at suspects, or Seo's logical reasoning, blindness plagues everyone, and enlightenment remains unattainable.

Memories of Murder

Without condescension, Bong treats his characters with a mixture of comedy and severity epitomized by the performance of Song, whose simultaneous goofiness and gravity lend the material an absurdity that's often heartbreaking. Culminating at the edge of a black tunnel that seems to stretch into infinity like a maw, Memories of Murder finds its characters dwarfed by ignorance and beset by darkness, and consequently it's no surprise that, faced with having to figure out on their own whether their would-be suspect is in fact the killer (after DNA lab results from America have exonerated him), Park can only look intently at him and conclude "Fuck, I don't know." There is no knowing in Bong's film, except about one's own weakness and helplessness, so that when Park revisits the scene of the first crime during the film's years-later coda and hears from a local girl that another man—obviously the killer—had also recently been there to reminisce about his past work, the only response he can muster is a silent stare at the audience that exposes, with chilling tragedy, his impotence.

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Posted by ahillis at October 20, 2012 1:14 PM