Memories of Murder is a Korean film based on a true story. In the mid 80s, a serial killer was killing women in rural Korea. That was as much as I knew about the film, other than some online critics had rated it very highly.
Asian cinema, formerly of the chop-socky variety, has evolved into some of the best cinema the world has to offer. True, there have been many masters of the far east dating back to the origins of film, including Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. Where the old masters came primarily from Japan, the new modern masters are now spread throughout all of Asia. In addition to Japan, great filmmakers comes from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Korea, and now, even Thailand.
Asian art cinema is filled with visual stylists, perhaps none more prominent than Wong Kar-wai and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Wong Kar-wai presents scenes of painterly majesty, with swathes of colors, like some impressionist painting. His story lines are often nearly as impressionist, telling events in people's lives, rather than telling an obvious story plot.
Hong Kong cinema, when it's not Jackie Chan, is all about cool. Characters wear sunglasses, carry themselves with bravado, and in the case of John Woo movies, live on the murky intersection of good and bad. Infernal Affairs, though not directed by Woo, tells the story of a police officer trained to be a mole to infiltrate a Hong Kong gang, and a Hong Kong gang member who enters the police academy, and is a mole for the gang.
Even Wong Kar-wai's aimless characters exude a kind of cool. A guy breaks into other people's shops after hours in Fallen Angels and compels customers to buy products. In his spare time, he exercises with a large dead pig.
Korean cinema, on the other hand, ends up being far grittier than the coolness of Hong Kong films, and to my taste, I think I prefer it. It's not that Koreans don't care about visual style--they do. Witness the gold, windswept grain fields, or green lotus leaves everywhere, or the long stretch of a train tunnel. Director Joon-ho Bong is just as concerned with how scenes are set up visually as he is telling his story.
And that leads me to the story. Memories of Murder starts off as a whodunit. We want to know who is killing the women. Initially, Park and his partner Jo are investigating the murder. A body has been found in a gutter of some sort in a farm. The cops are unable to cordone off the area, and kids and vehicles ruin the crime scene. Standard protocol in rural Korea is to find a scapegoat, beat them to an inch of their life (I've always wanted to write that), until they "confess" the crime. Even as they act like they are real cops, both are incompetent.
It's a credit to the script and the acting that neither of the two cops come across as unsympathetic, despite Jo's penchant to play bad cop, and kick and beat up potential suspects.
If there's anything Korean cinema seems realistic about, it's police brutality. This is at least the third film I've seen that suggest police brutality is quite common in Korea. But it's the first film to suggest why cops resort to it.
A cop from Seoul joins the case, and already, he can tell his new partners are idiots. He quickly observes the victims are all killed in the same fashion, strangled by a purse strap, head covered in panties, in the rain, dressed in red. A woman cop notes that a song always plays on that day as well, and she figures it must be the killer, signalling his intent to kill.
As the film presents one possible suspect after another, I sit wondering, who is it? And, yet, for each possible suspect, it would feel just wrong if they were the ones. Maybe a woman was killing the other women?
What Korean cinema seems to share in common with Asian cinema is that it's still a male society. If anything, it's because the women are not major characters that the rape scenes seem less explotive than it could be. We never know these women, at least, not well. Their deaths are merely evidence that the cops are unable to find the killer.
I was surprised at the amount of graphic sexual suggestion in the film. One man apparently likes to masturbate on women's clothing, and he's brought in as a suspect. Items are found in the women's dead bodies. You wouldn't expect to hear that in, say, a Hong Kong film. If there's anything that I like Korean cinema, it's that it's far less consciously stylish than Hong Kong cinema.
You just wouldn't expect that one of the two leads in a film is simply a bad cop, who works in a police force that is simply bumbling, and yet, you admire the kind of self-confidence this cop has for his own abilities. In the end, he's not a bad guy, though not a terribly good one either.
Because it's based on a true story of a serial killer that was never found, the film must explore other avenues, dealing with the people surrounding the events, and the frustration of being unable to get their man. I, too, desperately wanted someone to get caught, and so I was given to question why I needed familiar solutions, why the mystery had to be solved? The director must have also sensed that he needed a way to end the film, and he does so by rejoining the bad cop fifteen years after the fact. He's left the job, and now sells a product called "Green Power" out of his van.
As he drives, he sees the scene of the crime from fifteen years ago, and sits and ponders about this unsolved case. A little girl asks what he is doing, and he says nothing. She thinks it's interesting because she just met a man who was staring there too. She had asked him what he was doing, and he admitted he had done something many years ago, and wanted to visit. When asked what he looked like, the girl could only say, he looked plain and ordinary, nothing special.
When such crimes occur, especially in film, people desperately want closure. They want to know people can't get away with murder. And yet, sometimes they do. Real life often doesn't give us the pleasure of the ending we want.
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