The Face of A Killer: Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Memories of Murder’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Known mostly for his giant monster movie The Host (2006) and the action-scifi epic Snowpiercer (2013), Joon-ho Bong initially earned a reputation as a master of well-crafted and complex crime dramas, which focus on unique characters living otherwise ordinary lives, who find themselves abruptly enmeshed in the heinous lives of others. My first experience with Bong’s work was with Mother (2009), which is about a woman, an acupuncturist and herbalist, who takes on the daunting task of trying to clear her mentally handicapped son of a murder charge. Because I was immensely impressed with Bong’s storytelling skills and the great care with which he develops his characters—who are never rich, powerful, or glamorous (quite the contrary)—I didn’t hesitate to watch his earlier film Memories of Murder (2003).

Set in the Gyunggi province of South Korea, the movie follows Detectives Doo-man Park (Song Kang-ho) and Yong-koo Cho (Kim Roi-ha) on their endeavors at identifying the killer of two young women in their rural community. The local detectives are soon joined by Detective Tae-yoon Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is introduced to his two new partners as coming in “from Seoul” and as “volunteering” to help them with finding a suspect. The ensuing suspense can be interpreted in a number of ways. First, as a noir murder mystery in the tradition of Seven (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997), whose narratives are driven by gruesome murders and the hard-boiled detectives who pursue the killers day and night. Second, Memories of Murder is about the difficult lives of rural Koreans during a time of great social unrest and political oppression. 1986, when the murders occur, is also when a democracy movement emerged in South Korea against its authoritarian president Chun Doo Hwan. Consequently, a third way of viewing Bong’s movie is through the lens of mid-1980s South Korean politics, during which police forces like the one in Memories of Murder are hampered by a lack of resources. For example, after presumably figuring out the killer’s modus operandi (he targets women in red he finds on rainy nights, in addition to requesting that a sentimental ballad, “Sad Letter,” be played on a local radio station), the police sergeant Shin Dong-chul (Song Jae-ho) puts in a call for “two garrisons of men” the minute “Sad Letter” begins playing on the radio. It’s raining and all the detectives on the case are fearful of another murder happening imminently. Unfortunately, Sergeant Shin’s efforts are thwarted when he’s told that all available resources are committed to suppressing a student protest.

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Image credit: Bong Joon-ho

As I watched this movie for the second time recently I was pleasantly reminded of how affective the humor is in how Bong develops his story. The levity, however, isn’t limited to instances of a bungling police force, but also to showing the characters’ humanity. There’s humor because the police are in over their heads, because the characters need the medicine of laughter to get through the day, and to exhibit the inherent foolishness of how South Korean society, particularly in rural areas, is being governed. Complementing this humor, though, is the dreary and exasperating reality that no one, especially women and girls, is safe in this community. This is made obvious when the killer changes his m.o. and murders a school girl, complete with uniform and backpack, on a rainless night.

Without giving away the ending, in spite of how much has been written about it on the web, I can point out that much has been debated about the movie’s final scene. It seems to mean something different to each person watching the little girl at the end speak with now former Detective Park. Regardless of movie-making customs, American above all, for revealing the killer, along with his (sometimes her) motives for preying on others, not all crimes are solved. In the case of Bong’s movie, while one can simply say that his story is a reflection on real life events—some claim the film is inspired by a serial killer who was active in the Hwaseong area during the late 80s—it’s also an evocation of the evil that lurks within any society. More specifically, the unidentified killer in Bong’s utterly compelling film affirms the distressing fact that such a person could be anyone (I wondered, in fact, if the killer was one of the policemen working the case, such as Detective Cho). Lastly, insofar as Memories of Murder is a reflection of a tumultuous time in South Korean history, it’s fair to say that the real killer in Bong’s story is South Korean society itself, one that’s wrought with generations of historical trauma, which was exacerbated by a military dictatorship that saw its own people as the enemy.

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Photo credit: David Martínez


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