Do you like small towns? Do you have fond memories of the 1980s? Do you have a fascination for depraved serial killers? Do you crave police brutality? Do you dream of military dictatorship? Well, I have a movie for you.
A lush and beautiful wheat field is interrupted by a pathway and a noisy tractor. On the tractor is Detective Park. He is on his way to a crime scene. A woman had been raped, strangled, and tossed in a ditch. Children are playing nearby with what seems to be the woman’s underwear. Park yells at them to leave, but all he gets is one of the boys to mimic his yelling. The police round up over a dozen suspects and the movie shows Park interviewing a few of them, acting fairly disrespectful towards all of them except for a man wearing a proper suit and one with dreams to go into the military. By the end of the day, he is alone in the station and exhausted.
Some time later, Park arrives at another crime scene; a woman was raped, strangled, and left in a field of rice paddies. This time there is a crowd surrounding the area, including kids. The scene is completely ruined from an evidence gathering standpoint, despite Park yelling at his seemingly incompetent associates to secure it and yelling at everyone else to leave.
Park’s wife (I will assume that she is his wife) tells him that she had heard that a mentally challenged man named Baek had been known to follow one of the women around and was seen following her the night that she was murdered. Park picks up Baek and the movie introduces the two other main cops in the investigation. First up is Inspector Jo, who is not so much bad cop to Park’s good cop as he is Park’s attack dog. He walks into the interrogation room and just starts kicking Baek.
Then the movie introduces Detective Suh, who is just wandering on the street. He tries to ask a woman for directions, but inadvertently sends her fleeing and receives a flying kick from Park, who was on his way to recreate (as in fake) evidence from the second crime scene with Baek’s shoes. Suh had volunteered to come all the way from the big city of Seoul to help the small town cops with the investigation. Park’s boss tries to give him a warm welcome and Suh tries to be courteous, but the incident from earlier has clouded the proceedings.
Suh watches with disapproval as Park uses a photograph of the doctored evidence to wrangle a confession out of Baek. When that doesn’t work, they all go to the forest, where Jo starts digging a hole that Park says is going to be his grave. This frightens Baek into confessing about killing women who grimace at his ugly face, though he casually says that the women are his head. Whether these are thoughts that he had always had or thoughts that Park had planted in his mind is uncertain, but Park continues to plant thoughts in his mind while putting this “confession” on tape, not noticing that he never actually says that HE himself had committed the acts that he is describing. Unfortunately, Baek is not as forthcoming with details as Park and Jo would like, so they abuse him some more. No matter, the case is closed, and it is only a matter of reenact the crime for the media the next day.
We are about a fifth of the way through this movie, though, so of course Baek did not do it. Suh figures this out by inspecting Baek’s hands and reasoning that he could not have tied the knots that the killer had tied. He is not able to tell the others until the reenactment is already underway, but it is of little importance, as Baek’s father starts yelling and then Baek screams out that he didn’t do it. The case against him is thrown out, as is Park’s boss. As Park and Jo try to bring their replacement boss up to speed, Suh reveals that he believes there to be a third victim that they had simply not found yet. He had looked through the missing persons files and noticed a woman who had gone missing two months earlier. Like with the other victims, she had been wearing red and it had been raining when she had gone missing. Park simply believes that the girl ran away to Seoul, but Suh figures out the approximate area where the body is and the police eventually find her. If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now that this is the work of a serial killer, the first that the country had known. So what are they going to do?
Memories of Murder may not be first serial killer movie to come out of South Korea, but it is most likely the one that sparked the explosion of K-serial killer movies to come out during the next ten years. Why? Well, first, because it is excellent (I have not seen the earlier ones except for H, which has atmosphere going for it, but is otherwise H for Horrible). As soon as Suh enters the picture, it seems as if the movie is setting up his more methodical, cool, sophisticated, bureaucratic, big city style and his good looks to clash with Park’s more instinctual, undereducated, rough, corner-cutting, provincial ways and his frumpy everyman aura. The movie plays with that for a while before undercutting whatever message one may have thought was being made. Secondly, the subject matter probably struck a chord with the audience. Though heavily fictionalized, it is still based on a true story. Obviously, this is a movie for adults, and the movie was released seventeen years after the events of the film. Of course, this means that most of the people in the audience (at least during its theatrical run in South Korea) would have been alive during that time, even if they were only babies. Many of them would have remembered hearing about this serial killer. By the way, it is supposedly based on a play that was written in 1996, even closer to the time of the murders.
Extra context is not entirely necessary to enjoy this movie, but it may help. So…here goes. Some copies of this movie (either I missed it on the DVD that I got from the library or it simply was not there) have text at the beginning that point out that this took place during a military dictatorship. I have doubts that that text was in the original South Korean version as most South Koreans watching the movie would know that by the time the text that says that the movie takes place in 1986 comes around about a minute later. I am told that the original title could be translated as “Memories of Murder” or “Reminiscence of Murder”, with the latter being more accurate, though less poetic in English. Whether it is memories or reminiscence, it is not referring to the characters, but the audience. Just as they would remember the story of the serial murders, they would have remembered the dictatorship.
This movie takes place shortly before the end of dictatorial rule and the introduction of democracy. Well, sort of; there had been a short flirtation with democracy in 1960 before the military stomped in. In this case, a lack of a united front amongst opposition candidates made it so that Roh Tae-woo won the election with 36% of the votes. While Roh would do a fairly good job of improving the nation during his tenure between 1988 and 1993 (the real serial killer supposedly stopped killing around 1991, by the way), he would probably not have even been in the running in the first place had he not been the right-hand man of the previous president, Chun Doo-hwan. Six days after the assassination of the fascist Park Chung-hee (father of recent President Park Geun-hye) in 1979, the military reasserted its rule over the country with General Chun at the helm and Roh by his side. Six months later, they would violently crush a Democratization movement in the southwestern city of Gwangju. Protesters were labeled communist rioters and the media was forced to go along with this lie. There was a lot more than that, but Chun was president from 1980 to 1988.
While the Gwangju Massacre is not really mentioned in Memories of Murder, there are heavy allusions to it, including many that I probably did not catch. I even heard of one theory that the murderer was driven to murder due to the massacre. I am not sure about that, but in any case, Chun’s rule was already seen as undeniably unpopular by 1985. The death of a political protester in 1987 finally gave explicit confirmation of the numerous accusations of police torture, which ramped up political protests (leading to the death of another protester) and forced Chun to step down. Although Roh had played a major role in the brutality of the previous era, he still did away with some of the worst parts of his predecessor’s reign; whether he did so because it was the right thing to do or because he had no choice if he wanted to stay in power is beyond my knowledge, though I am guessing the latter.
In any case, his election in late 1987 and ascendance to the presidency in early 1988 may not have marked the beginning of democracy in South Korea, but the transition to democracy had begun, along with the cementing of the position of superiority over North Korea on the World Stage. Again, that began in 1988. This movie takes place in 1986. This means that the nation was in a state of turmoil, but not quite ready to make the leap away from what had been. This means the forces have to double down, certain in their correctness, since the alternative is being on the outs. Park is certain that his way is correct, and Suh is certain that his way is correct. Both will be challenged, and not just by each other. If the previous four decades were a time of absolutes, then the nation in 1986 has reached a time of uncertainty. The movie does not depict the downfall of the government, but it does suggest that any climactic battle is not going to take place in this town; there are just too many holes in the system for it to make a last stand here. Whatever oppression is happening elsewhere, the culture of obedience is seriously slipping here. People follow the rules if they see no reason not to, but they do not really go out of their way anymore and they don’t even take the rules all that seriously.
Park’s underhanded tactics and Jo’s overaggressive force may sometimes be played for laughs, but it is never portrayed as good or justified, even when they are going after someone who is probably guilty. For them, probably guilty is just as good as guilty, so they will hit their target with everything they have until he confesses. Certain American police shows tend to do this, shrugging off false arrests and accusations as if the people deserved what was coming to them. Not here. Suh is meant to be a foil for this, perhaps even an audience surrogate, showing how one is supposed to do detective work. As I said earlier, though, things are not that simple. There is one scene in this movie when the president has come to visit and Jo is seen dragging a girl (assumed to be a protester), throwing her to the ground, and kicking her. Later on, though, the boss is shown scolding him for his brutal tactics in the interrogation room. Not because they are wrong, no, but because the press might find out. I guess that control of the media was not so firm at the time.
As an American, I have no real understanding in regards to the status of cops in South Korea, something that has been made abundantly clear only this week, when I learned about a controversy regarding the police handling of a drunk person. It is not my place to go into details, but it just showed how little I knew about how the South Korean police force is perceived, was perceived when this movie came out in 2003, or was perceived in 1986.
Almost nobody in the movie likes the cops. Many fear them or tolerate them, but everyone knows of their brutal methods and disapproves. In this movie, the strong arm tactics do not portray strength, but weakness; a lashing out at things that they cannot control. And that happens only when they can use force. Early scenes show kids and adults casually ignoring police orders because they simply do not respect the police. During another time, they call for reinforcements to arise, only to learn that the extra police who were supposed to come are out quelling some protest. It seems as if all of their authority comes from state-sanctioned violence; not their ability to solve cases, and certainly not their ability to tell women to avoid walking through the woods unaccompanied. This is how a dictatorship crumbles; not from a single shot to the head, but from years of wearing down those who enforce it. There is one scene where a girl suggests that all police should all be castrated. At that point, it is pretty much a done deal. In another scene, someone yells at the cops for causing a violent fight, but refers to them as students. When they proclaim that they are cops, the person does not believe it. Or maybe the person does believe that they are cops, but refuses to grant them the authority that cops are meant to have. What right have they to call themselves cops after what had just happened? Maybe, just maybe, the search for the serial killer would have been easier had the police managed to earn some amount of respect from the populace.
This is also a world of men and of men trying to assert their superiority over other men. Women are the ones who need to be protected or owned, so they get sidelined or killed off. The only women who are seen being treated as some sort of information-giving authority do so from more marginal methods of gossip and fortune-telling. There is only one woman of note in the entire police station: Officer Kwon. Two schoolgirls who meet her are surprised and maybe a little impressed that she is a police officer, but it doesn’t really mean much. She is put on the operation only when using a woman is absolutely necessary, otherwise she is pretty much relegated to getting coffee. She does make what may be a significant discovery in the case, but while the other detectives follow up on it, the only thanks or acknowledgement that she gets is a sarcastic one from Park.
The women’s worth are only in relation to the men. This is the world of men and if it is going down, it is going down fighting; whether that be by police brutality or through raping and strangling women. Well, maybe not fighting; more like flailing and kicking. It is like a kid throwing a tantrum and breaking toys, or strangling them. The police force is both pathetic and dangerous, like the serial killer.
There is one scene in a hostess bar where Park and Suh are getting into what might call a drunken argument while their boss is practically passed out and a couple of women (most likely employees of the bar) are just sitting there providing company. Behind them, and just out of view, Jo is doing who knows what with a woman; it could be just some fooling around, but it could also be plain old sexual assault. The woman next to Suh looks over to see what is going on and grins mischievously. Just another night with a handsy client.
The world in Memories of Murder marks the middle of the end of the old order. Gone is the foreign domination of China and Japan. The nearly forty years of military dictatorship is going as well, and will hopefully not return. Democracy is coming. Compromised and corrupt as it may be, it is democracy. Yet, something else is coming too. The end of the military dictatorship brings with it the nation’s first serial killer. In other words, there are more to come. The serial killer is a sign that all is not well even with the start of a new era, that wickedness just takes place in a different and unexpected form. The South Korea of 2003 was much different than in 1986, but has it changed THAT much? How about now?
Okay, so that “context” managed to take up most of my casual analysis, which is not what I expected would happen when I had first started typing up this piece. Well, so be it. This is a great movie, with so much going on below the surface. Of course, there is more underneath than I have been able to reveal here, including one particular detail that I had deliberately left out, but most in the South Korean audience would know going into the movie. Watch it. Watch it again after finding out what I left out. And then watch it one more time when you have stopped trying to piece together any clues. And then watch it a fourth time, because it is really that wonderful.
WTF ASIA 60: Ramdhanu (India: 2014, approx. 134 minutes)
WTF ASIA 61: Where Are The Dreams of Youth (Japan: 1932, approx. 85 minutes)
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