Director Bong Joon-ho
MEMORIES OF MURDER (Salinui chueok) A
South Korea (130 mi) 2003 d: Bong Joon-ho
A terrific film, a comedy of errors of all things gone wrong in a police procedural that has a bit of the obsessive nature of ZODIAC (2007) mixed with dysfunctional, time-warped characters the likes of which we haven’t seen since IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). Set in a place where scientific progress collides against the inept, near barbaric police methods used in small, rural villages, the film is surprising in its shifting tone throughout, from its raucous physical comedy to its quiet inner poignancy, using sumptuous opening visuals, taking perfect advantage of the beautiful panoramic mountainous scenery, shot in the rural region of Gyeonggi Province, cinematography by Kim Hyung-gu. Supposedly adapted from a play, though one would never know it, as the film makes excellent use of multiple locations, all of which create an uncertainty of what the viewers will be exposed to next. Based on real life incidents of a serial killer who raped and murdered ten women without leaving a trace of evidence behind, the film focuses on two police detectives, a big, bumbling local cop Detective Park (Song Kang-ho, nothing short of brilliant in the role), something of a lunkhead who typically beats his potential suspects into confessions, along with his maniacal Kung fu jumping partner Detective Cho (Kim Rae-ha), who becomes a feet-first, flying projectile always aimed squarely into his suspect’s chests, both of whom take exception to the outside presence of Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung from TURNING GATE), a more sophisticated, big city detective from Seoul who volunteered to help find the murderer. Initially, Seo remains quietly behind the scenes, invisible as a ghost, deferring to the comical antics of the local cops who literally stumble over one another as well as the crime scene, but as he is apparently the only cop in the vicinity who actually reviews evidence, he eventually becomes more outspoken and takes over the case. Despite leading the investigation, pouring over the details with his calm intelligence, after they’ve run through a handful of suspects, his more meticulous methods lead them no closer to solving this crime. Over time, the need to find answers becomes something of a nagging obsession.
The film uses the eerie landscape of a gargantuan factory on the edge of a grassy field with secluded wooded areas where the killer lies in wait. Occasionally the camera takes the position of his vantage point, and when he suddenly leaps out at his victims, it has the sensation of a tiger leaping out of the jungle where he can only be seen at the last split second. By then it is too late. Exquisitely crafted, these are heart-racing, panic ridden moments where the rush of Iwashiro Taro’s music kicks into high gear. These sudden bursts of energy are matched by occasional brawls in the police station where the squabbling detectives themselves attack one another like animals, which only adds to the ineptitude of their investigation. There are hilarious asides, such as the utter lack of community respect for crime scenes, where tractors and children freely trample all over potential evidence, also the local cop’s obvious thrill at watching a cheesy American TV cop show while munching down food in between beatings, the creepy sensation of having to watch Detective Park’s girl friend calmly cleaning the wax out of his ears following uneventful sex, or a visit from the Prime Minister, which one would think would be a prestigious event, but when he is ambushed by a violent crowd of protesters who denounce his ineffectiveness, it reveals a complete societal lack of respect for authority. Additionally, there is a continuing local investigative TV series on police brutality which has the entire town up in arms and thoroughly suspicious of anything they do, actually coming under attack by citizens at one point when attempting to interrogate a potential witness.
As we become more familiar with the disparate nature of the zany cops and the equally bizarre criminal suspects, also understanding that the government can’t send sufficient help as they’re too busy protecting themselves from their own citizens, the initial Keystone cops hilarity gives way to the severity of the crimes, where in a ghastly change of pace, we see a helplessly bound sympathetic victim alive just before she is brutalized. Despite the length of the film, these abrupt mood shifts keep the audience off balance, never knowing what to expect, interjecting high doses of suspense and graphically detailed exposure to crime scenes with long doses of quiet reflection, which includes the use of the expansive landscape and occasional downpours of rain. The lead characters reverse their roles in the end, as the local brawler has to restrain the city cop from resorting to his own underhanded methods, where the outrage at their futility in being unable to solve the case leads to a fleeting notion of morality, where the world as they know it has been turned upside down by a phantom figure they can’t find. Both the opening and closing sequences are stunning for their mix of dark humor and brooding poetry, where it’s apparent the impact of these events is traumatizing in ways people can’t fully comprehend, the breadth and scope of which they’ll never get out of their systems. It’s all part of the human equation, having to live with and ultimately accept their own shortcomings and human limitations.