After witnessing Na Hong-jin’s excellent The Wailing, it reminded me of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, which, to me, is one of the masterpieces of modern South Korean cinema.
I’d written about it several years ago on the old Storyboard blog at Blogger, when I first encountered Bong’s films. What I found at the time, was that Bong’s films were pretty much anti-Hollywood, even though they were deep-set in the Hollywood blockbuster genres (Memories of Murder/serial killer, The Host/B monster).
It was interesting to note that in many instances, in both Memories and The Host, the victim was always male bravado. In Memories, especially, with its hilarious display of misguided male rage manifesting in many flying kicks, the impotency of the male was very pronounced. Even the humorous sexual impotency of its macho-posturing country cop, played by Song Kang-ho, foreshadows his powerlessness against an unknowable foe, an untraceable serial killer.
Often in Hollywood movies, muscle and power are all it takes to overcome obstacles. This has long shaped our mainstream-cinema idea of the all-overpowering male ego that, even though it may be faced with near-defeats, almost always comes out triumphant. But Bong “subverts the idea that the aggressive male is the epitome of problem-solving and the catalyst in the defeat of danger,” I wrote back then.
Revisiting the film now, I found that its idea of impotency is even more hilarious upon repeat viewing. The film has aged very well, it being a period piece set in the 80s during a time of strict curfews, corrupt law enforcement and martial law, a time when South Korea was haunted by its first serial killer, a true event that inspired the film. In fact, the disdain for corrupt authority is still very much explored, most recently in 2013’s The Attorney, another film that stars the versatile Song Kang-ho, along with The Wailing‘s Kwak Do-won in his usual role as a despicable asshole.
What I did notice in viewing Memories of Murder after so many years, is how I’m still peeling away the layers in the story and discovering new things. Most notably, the film takes a jab, both funny and poignant, at our human nature of assigning meanings to things that have no meaning.
When I was still a newspaper journalist, I was tasked with writing a piece about the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9-11 incident, in 2011, the 10th anniversary of the WTC attacks. It was an intriguing assignment, delving into the very human response to inexplicable events. People choose to see what they want to see, and they often choose to observe patterns that are not there. Or they simply omit the inconvenient.
The detectives in the film, time and again, attempt to profile the killer. Detective Park, played by Song, thinks the killer may have hairless pubes, and claims ever so often that he can tell a criminal from just his looks. Together with Detective Seo from Seoul, they began to piece together several clues until it emerges that the killer only kills on rainy nights and when a particular song is played on a radio programme. And that he has soft hands. They narrow down their search to a clean-cut factory worker who may or may not be their quarry.
As with all serial killer movies and police procedural films, it’s about the search for patterns, for something recognisable, something comprehensible. There has to be a motive, there has to be a reason. There has to be an answer to the why’s. Surely the aliens built the pyramids, and surely Emperor Nero let Rome burn to ashes so that his Domus Aurea could be built. And surely, Saddam must have harbored weapons of mass destruction. Patterns, reasons, motives, answers.
But what if, asks the film, just what if the serial killer is just an ordinary-looking guy that no one would suspect upon first look? What if he simply has no motive? As the little girl tells Park years later at the crime scene, the man who might be the killer looked “plain” and there was nothing extraordinary about him.
Can our human minds accept that kind of truth? Can we come to terms with the fact that a bunch of guys could indeed guide commercial jets into buildings after just a few simple flying lessons?
The famous last shot of the film, as Detective Park breaks the fourth wall and looks straight at the audience, seems like a challenge to us to accept that sometimes, shit just happens for no reason.
It’s an amazing piece of work, with Bong’s trademark bookending, something he has done since Barking Dogs Never Bite, returning to the same characters from the beginning of the film, in the setting we saw at the start, but with the context and milieu forever altered.
It’s also a powerful metaphor for the state of South Korean society that arose out of the ashes of a corrupt and brutal dictatorship, yet finding no closure as the crimes of the state remain unpunished while society is forever haunted by the ghosts of its past.