Memories Of Murder
Last night we screened Memories Of Murder, the first of five films that we've dubbed "New Voices Of Asian Cinema". The intention is to showcase some of the younger generation of filmmakers from the region who are building on the work of past masters and taking cinema in new, and sometimes surprising, directions.
Korean cinema has been on something of a roll lately. Bong Joon-ho's Memories Of Murder adds significantly to that reputation. It tells the story of an unsolved serial murder case that wracked a provincial community from 1986-1991: ten women were raped and murdered but the killer was never caught. On the surface, the film has all the ingredients of a classic policier, unravelling the grotesquely incompetent efforts of the local cops to pin responsibility for the crimes on a succession of unlikely suspects.
But Bong's ambitions are much deeper than this. The dramatic and moral heart of the film centres on the often antagonist relationship between two combative detectives. Park is the epitome of the fat, complacent, lazy cop, who (together with his thuggish sidekick) is out of his depth and unwilling to acknowledge his own shortcomings. The floundering investigation is given a boost by the lean, intense and rigorous Seo who arrives from Seoul and seems to be making some progress with his deductive methods. Inevitably the two clash and Bong handles this standoff skillfully, blending antagonistic confrontations with incongruous comedy. As the story unfolds the tragi-farcical blundering of the detectives appear less amusing and to cast an interrogative eye on some bigger issues.
This is where Memories Of Murder breaks new ground, moving in directions that dislocate conventional expectations. For Bong wants to say something important about the broader dynamics of a failing society. The macho world of the police station is shot in bleached out colours so as better to highlight the commonplace corruption, negligence and violence, and the stark inadequacy of the investigators. At the same time, the sodden images of the murdered corpses become more graphic and the stories of the women most personal precisely as the chances of a prosecution fades. All of this is set against the last years of Korean military rule with citizens drilled or beaten into conformity and suspicion. This then is Bong's take on the paranoia of a society that is beginning to fracture and feels uncertain of its own future. The unsolved murders symbolise that fracturing.
The final scenes of the film are stunning. The cool and rational Seo has altered beyond recognition. He thinks he has a prime suspect, an inscrutable youth, and is unwilling to wait for forensic confirmation. In a frantic confrontation by the entrance of a railway tunnel Seo threatens the young man with a beating and then a gun – he no longer needs evidence; his only motive now is brute revenge. Only the intervention of Park, the anti-hero, saves the young man's life. Seo, literally, has blood on his hands; his principles have been shredded; his failure is final. And, as Bong's film suggests, it is a collective failure which still haunts a whole society.