Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억) – ★★★★★

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억)

Truth is, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction. Perhaps the cliche is best served when applied to the criminal classes, as events that would seemingly belong in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the films of Martin Scorcese are violently brought into ‘the real’, adding an incomparable shock value with the knowledge that criminal empires were actually built, and that victims genuinely suffered. More specifically, the notion of the serial killer has endeared itself amongst fans of the crime genre for the thrilling cat-and-mouse games played by the detective and murderer, but more so in attempting to piece together the depraved psychosis of the unhinged individual before another innocent succumbs to such unbalanced desires.

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억), director Bong Joon-ho’s (봉준호) incredible second film, is based on the true story of Korea’s first known serial killer who raped and murdered ten women between 1986 and 1991 – a case that is still unresolved. Memories of Murder is one of the most successful and prolific films to emerge from Korea and rightfully so, with superb direction from one of the country’s leading auteurs and an exceptional performance from lead actor Song Kang-ho (송강호).

In a small rural town surrounded by farmland, the naked and bound body of a young woman is found in an irrigation tunnel. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is called to the scene, but all traces of evidence have been destroyed by the locals. Shortly thereafter, the body of another young woman is found, raped and murdered in the same fashion. With no leads, Doo-man and his aggressive partner Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha (김뢰하) are tasked with finding the culprit, beating and torturing any suspects who visually conform to their idea of a serial killer. Their theories and methods of interrogation are rejected by intellectual Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경) who joins the search, but as the three detectives squabble and desperately cling to the loosest of hunches, and with the government too busy quelling the various uprisings throughout the country, the number of murdered young women continues to rise.

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

Detective Park Doo-man discovers the first victim

There is a tendency with crime-thrillers to reveal the bloodied and mutilated corpses of the victims for shock value, a tendency from which Bong Joon-ho wisely refrains and instead allows the horrifying true story to be at the forefront of the film. His vision in presenting the narrative is enthralling as he simultaneously conveys beauty and the macabre seamlessly – when Detective Park Doo-man visits the broad, expansive golden farmland in the initial establishing shot, mere moments later he is confronted with a corpse in a darkened, claustrophobic tunnel. The interplay between such oppositions, which have marked Bong Joon-ho as an auteur, continually explore the duality of the situation as light conflicts with darkness, the truth struggles against the veneer, and the lines between morality and immorality are blurred. As such, Memories of Murder contains some incredibly dark humour, such as the ramifications in fabricating evidence and the bizarre perversity that is unlocked in certain members of the populace when news of the murders spreads, adding a comedic edge that stops the film from becoming bleak but also conveys the turmoil and frustrations in attempting to catch a serial killer.

In addition to his interest in duality, Bong Joon-ho’s recurrent social exploration is rather blatantly laid bare and few are portrayed positively. The military government is too busy extinguishing public protests to provide resources; the public are too ignorant to understand they are destroying evidence; media outlets compound the situation further; and men are chauvinistic and sexist. By far the most damning indictments are reserved for the police force, as corruption and violence are commonplace. Detectives Park Doo-man and Cho Yong-koo have received very little education and their logic-defying hunches are simultaneously comedic yet disturbing, as Doo-man rehearses confessional speeches with suspects after Yong-koo has tortured them into submission. Both men humiliate the police force and make them a national embarrassment with their actions, as Bong Joon-ho initially portrays them as simpletons in need of a scapegoat. Intellectual detective Seo Tae-yoon fairs much better having received an education and training in Seoul, yet even he succumbs to the moral abyss due to the frustration with his peers and the lack of resources at his disposal. Bong Joon-ho creates a powerfully damning portrait of the era, yet the dark humour and the often unbelievably surreal events that transpire make the protagonists somehow likable as they themselves are attempt to create order within a society in chaos.

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

The detectives target anyone who fits their idea of a serial killer

Song Kang-ho, as Detective Park Doo-man, is superb and utterly deserving of his Grand Bell Best Actor Award for the role. Park Doo-man is a bullying fraudster, a corrupt tyrant, yet amazingly is a compelling and charismatic protagonist. His rudimentary upbringing and attitude convey him as an underdog who routinely makes mistakes, and as such resorts to fabricating evidence regardless. Yet when his actions bring the police into disrepute, Doo-man’s evolution is incredible as he begins to emulate Detective Seo-Tae-yoon and commit to serious police work, making Memories of Murder as much about his maturation as about finding the serial killer.

Detective Cho Yong-koo is ultimately a proletariat figure with a penchant for violence, and Kim Roi-ha performs the role well. Bong Joon-ho uses the protagonist of Yong-koo to express the base dissatisfaction with the institution, and as such is more akin to a criminal as he abuses suspects, drinks alcohol, fights with locals, and more importantly sexually assaults a girl in a karaoke room – right next to his oblivious fellow officers.

Kim Sang-kyeong also conveys a highly competent performance as pretentious Seoulite Detective Seo Tae-yoon. As his modern style of police work inspires Park Doo-man, the corruption conversely leads to the devolution of Tae-yoon as his frustrations engulf his sense of reason. Yet while Doo-man’s character arc is compelling, Tae-yoon’s is less so due to his reserved and conceited portrayal.

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives down a dark path

Searching for the killer leads all the detectives into a moral vacuum

Verdict:

Memories of Murder is a fantastic example of a crime-thriller that does not rely on gore in producing an enthralling film about serial murders. While artistic license has undoubtedly been applied in certain areas, the fact it is based on a real-life unresolved case provides authenticity and a mixture of genuine fascination and horror that such events could transpire in recent history. As such it justifiably deserves its status as being not only one of the most prolific films to originate from Korea, but also in cementing Bong Joon-ho’s reputation as a respected auteur, making Memories of Murder one of the most noteworthy examples of the genre.

★★★★★

Advertisements
Reviews
Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생) – ★★★★★

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생)

Contemporary action heroes are markedly different from their forebearers. Fragments of the stoic hard-boiled masculinity of the noir 1930s, the rebellious ‘anti-hero’ escapades of the ’60s, and the hyper-masculinity of the ’80s amongst others still exist yet are characterised by more psychologically flawed and vulnerable protagonists. The psychosis of the contemporary action hero is propagated further by his/her unfettered arrogance which often serves to be the source of their appeal; they may be murderous unhinged individuals, but they conduct violence with such swagger and confidence that popularity is undoubtedly assured. The most recent incarnation of James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is a prime example of such characterisation and differs incredibly from previous actors rendition of the spy. Such traits are of fundamental significance in Kim Ji-woon’s (김지운) A Bittersweet Life (달콤한 인생), an amazingly stylised action noir thriller that boasts an incredible performance from leading man Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌).

Kim Sun-woo (Lee Byeong-Heon) is an enforcer for ruthless gangster and hotel owner Mr. Kang (Kim Young-cheol (김영철). Sun-woo is the epitome of diligence and loyalty, protecting his boss’ interests above all else including beating lower-tier gangsters that visit the establishment to cause trouble. Before a business trip to Shanghai, Mr. Kang orders Sun-woo to watch his young girlfriend Hee-soo (Sin Min-ah (신민아) for fear she is meeting another, younger, man. If Sun-woo confirms his suspicions, he must ‘take care’ of the situation. Yet when Sun-woo meets Hee-soo he is captivated by her, and cannot fulfill his obligations when her affair is discovered. Enraged, Mr. Kang orders his men to punish Sun-woo, setting in motion a series of events that tests both men to their limits.

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

Sun-woo is an arrogant, lethal enforcer for Mr. Kang

As expected from auteur  Kim Ji-woon, A Bittersweet Life is technically fantastic with wonderful framing and composition, and superb use of mise-en-scene. The writer/director combines a multitude of different generic features seamlessly. The elegant gangster inspired ‘La Dolce Vita’ restaurant is exquisitely constructed, with a title that becomes a recurring subliminal pun throughout the film. The ultra-violent action sequences are brutal and shocking in their presentation, often accompanied by noir-esque shadows and suspense. The inclusion of romantic motifs are subtle yet moving as close up shots of minor mannerisms effect Sun-woo, that ultimately lead to his downfall. Sun-woo’s loneliness is consistently emphasised by framing devices that convey his isolation, as do the angled shots that portray the trajectory of his devolution down the gangster hierarchy. Kim Ji-woon’s renowned use of colour is on full display, from the bright white corridors that lead to the deep red and black interior of ‘La Dolce Vita’ to the continued use of bright lights surrounding love-interest Hee-soo. This subtly ties into Sun-woo’s almost obsessive compulsive disorder for switching lamps on and off several times before sleeping, as Hee-soo is constantly surrounded by light and has a penchant for lamps of all varieties.

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo escorts Hee-soo, whose subtle charms impair his judgment

Sun-woo is an incredibly arrogant and prideful protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Lee Byeong-Heon. The intensity and conflict from his previous roles serves him well as Sun-woo’s narrative journey takes him from the upper echelons of the gang to crawling on his knees. And yet Sun-woo still refuses to acknowledge his feelings or to apologise, just as Mr. Kang refuses to change his stance to spare his dignity. They are mirrors of each other not just in personality and career but also in their affection for Hee-soo, and it’s ultimately that jealousy that destroys them all including the organisation. The final images of Sun-woo shadow boxing with his own reflection in ‘La Dolce Vita’ are tragically revealing, as his narcissistic spirit is forever locked in an internal love/hate battle with himself and his organisation. The other actors all convey great performances, although they are somewhat underdeveloped. Sin Min-ah conveys innocence and naivety as Hee-soo, and immeasurable sadness when her affair is brought to light. Kim Young-cheol is wonderfully sadistic as Mr. Kang and the mirror of Sun-woo, conveying real internal conflict when giving orders against his protege. As jealous second lieutenant Mun-suk, Kim Roi-ha is delightfully vindictive despite his limited character.

Sun-woo's arrogance leads to his downfall

Sun-woo’s arrogance leads to his downfall

Verdict:

A Bittersweet Life is an incredibly stylised action/gangster/noir thriller that is head-and-shoulders above other recent examples of the genre. As always, director Kim Ji-woon doesn’t disappoint, employing a variety of generic motifs to wonderful effect that keeps the film moving at a brisk pace without detracting from lead character Sun-woo’s development. Lee Byeong-Heon gives a wonderful performance as the flawed anti-hero, and despite his violent tendencies and arrogance is one of the most compelling action protagonists in recent memory. A Bittersweet Life is a premier example of the innovation of Korean cinema, and a more than worthy addition to the genre.

★★★★★

Reviews