Thursday, November 28, 2019

Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok)

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.    

Monday, November 25, 2019

Mother (Madeo)

Director Bong Joon-ho

MOTHER (Madeo)                A-                   
South Korea  (129 mi)  2009  ‘Scope  d:  Bong Joon-ho

Another extremely intelligent film, a psychological thriller that veers into murder mystery territory, with a shifting storyline that leaves the audience a bit off-kilter by the end, still wondering more about the full extent of the central relationship between mother and son.  There’s a killer opening credit sequence that features the title character wandering through a grassy field looking somewhat dazed before stopping, turning to the camera, and performing a free form dance, not really in rhythm to the Spanish guitar music, but lost in her own peculiar world, a scene that repeats itself later with a different perspective.  Korean TV star Kim Hye-ja is mercilessly plastered all throughout this film, never seeming to enjoy a single minute of it, as every second is spent watching over her grown son Do-Joon (Won Bin), who due to his mental impairment has the brain function of a young child, including considerable memory loss.  Do-Joon continues to live at home with his mother, even sleeping in the same bed where his hand can be seen resting on her breast.  But there’s an eye opening jolt when Do-Joon is nearly run over by a luxury Mercedes Benz car that continues on without stopping.  His friend, local bad boy Jin Tae (Jin Goo), figures it must be heading to the golf course and they follow to administer local justice, but they bungle their mission, spending the afternoon with the hit and run drivers cooling their heels at the police station.  

Even though Jin Tae appears to be his friend, he nonetheless blames Do-Joon for breaking the Mercedes side mirror that he himself broke.  This establishes the pattern where Do-Joon is routinely called names by others in town and blamed out of convenience for things he didn’t do.  The idea that the disabled are weak and easy to be exploited is a central theme of Bong Joon-ho, occurring previously in Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) (2003) where the police are quick to blame a village idiot character for a series of murders.   The same thing happens here as Do-Joon is quickly arrested and charged with the murder of a young girl in what the police are calling an open and shut case.  The audience is shown a few visual cues just around the time of the murder, but nothing substantial.  A lawyer is hired, but he is soon depicted in the most reprehensible manner, a man with few, if any, remaining ethics, as he’d just as soon sell out his own clients, concerned more about his own image and the collection of his fee.  The police aren’t much better, as they easily coerce Do-Joon through fear of physical violence to confess to a crime he has no knowledge of ever committing.  The authorities have no interest in what really happened, despite parading every known CSI contraption out before the public in a blatant effort to fool people into believing they know what they are doing, covering up the real fact that they haven’t a clue.  

This leaves Kim Hye-ja to trudge through the rain in search of clues to save her son, actually turning into a police procedural film through her meticulous efforts to follow the evidence.  This of course leads to dead ends mixed alongside essential information.  Perhaps the most outrageous sequence in the film is when she tries to offer her condolences to the grieving family who nearly start a riot in outrage over her presence.  The authorities in town have everyone convinced that her son is the killer, so she is threatened and eventually assaulted by the girl’s family.  The mother initially suspects Jin Tae, actually sneaking into his home where she is forced to hide behind a curtain in a perfect example of Hitchcockian suspense, where Lee Byeong-woo’s music matches the frayed nerves.  Out of sheer desperation, she is force to hire Jin Tae to try to break down a couple of glue sniffers who have been concealing information about the girl.  Do-Joon himself, pressed to recall what happened, has brief flashbacks of clarity, but they’re not always pertaining to the case, as he scares the hell out of his mother when he recalls a horrifying memory of such a hideous nature that it's hard not to recoil in disbelief.  If it’s not one setback, it’s another, but the mother relentlessly pursues what she can, stopping at nothing, crawling ever closer to knowing what happened.  Hong Gyeong-pyo’s cinematography captures in great detail the small, decrepit quarters of the rural poor where the walls are crumbling, where dark community secrets are held, where the physical reality matches the deteriorating state of mind of the mother’s ever increasing desperation.  By the time we reach the finale, some viewers may believe she has solved the puzzle while others may feel she is no closer to ascertaining the truth, as truth remains ambiguous and elusive, leaving the mother rattled and in a state of shock.  Bong Joon-ho utilizes near experimental imagery for his final sequence, one that has little basis in reality and instead extends the realms of the imagination to near formless images of fire dancing in the air as if the truth is going down in flames.