MKC's Most Anticipated Korean Films of 2016 MKC's Top 10 Korean Films of 2015 Busan 2015 Review: ALONE Winds Its Mystery Through the Backstreets of Seoul Busan 2015 Review: VETERAN MKC's Top 10 Korean Films of 2014

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part IV - Subversion of Genre

Bong Joon-ho is well known for his deft handling of generic conventions; he not only understands and respects their limitations but know how to manipulate them to his advantage without compromising their effectiveness. Memories draws heavily on the long line of detective thrillers that have spewed forth from Hollywood consistently for decades on end. It is a very established genre with extremely recognizable codes and characters: the dual protagonist detectives, the patterns, the anticipation of the next murder, all these things form part of what has consistently remained one of the most popular filmic formulas worldwide. With Memories Bong creates a visceral and extremely effective detective thriller that highlights all of these codes and yet subverts many of them to very satisfying effect.

First of all, it is worth examining the position of this genre within contemporary South Korean cinema. Memories is not the only recent example and it is also not the only one that has some fun with it. An early commercial example after the boom in the industry before the start of the new millennium is Tell Me Something, which stars Han Suk-kyu, easily the biggest star at the time (it was the year after he made Shiri which broke box office records at the time). It was a thorough success and it even garnered an audience overseas and is now available in many countries. In his essay on Tell Me Something, Kim Kyu-Kyun credits how “director Chang skillfully manipulates the expectations of the audience to a generic melodramatic plot in which Su-Yon would fall in love with Detective Cho, only to shock us with the revelation that the serial murders are motivated by a gender-related reason", the director engages with the genre in a very conscious way and ends up subverting it. Since then there has been a rush of modern Korean films that have featured male victims and female antagonists instead of the other way around. In these examples the denouements often show the audience the various motivations behind the brutal murders which often include scarred pasts where fathers or other authoritarian figures end up as the narratives’ real villains. Princess Aurora is an excellent example of this; the end features a flashback sequence that inculpates all of her victims in the murder of her daughter. This revenge formula is quite prevalent in South Korean Cinema, and can be found in Beautiful Boxer and the internationally renowned Park Chan-wook film, Lady Vengeance, both of these films also deal with mothers having to cope with the loss of their daughters and how society has placed them in their precarious situations.

Beyond these serial killer narratives, there are also films like Public Enemy, starring the inimitable Sol Kyung-gu, as a gruff detective who has difficulty juggling his professional and personal life and treads the narrative without ambiguous morality. He is a character who is corrupt, violent and very unprofessional. From a western perspective it is difficult to understand how he could have risen to his current position but this is not unfamiliar in Korean cinema. Much like Det. Park in Memories, his journey is a much more progressive one, which ends in a tidy resolution where he earns the respect of his colleagues and there have now been two sequels to date where he is no longer so incompetent. These subsequent films are not as interesting but were successful at Korean box office although not as popular overseas. Another point worth noting in Public Enemy is the mention of the immensely popular television show Chief Inspector which aired in the 1980s and featured a very famous opening credits song. In Public Enemy, an internal affairs inspector is being shooed away from the homicide department by the chief inspector and in defense he then recites a plotline from a Chief Inspector episode to intimidate him, as if he were reciting from a police manual. The show is so engrained in South Korean pop culture that in this send-up it is taken as fact. Similarly, early in Memories, the local inspectors and Baek (the first big suspect) take a moment to eat and commune in front of the television set as Chief Inspector starts. They all hum along to the tune and comment on it. It’s a great piece of dark humor to see homicide detectives watching a cheesy police show in the midst of investigating Korea’s first reported series of serial murders. In both Public Enemies and Memories, the mention of Chief Inspector speaks volumes about the perceived credibility of law enforcement by the general Korean populace.
Watching Chief Inspector during an interrogation
In Memories, many generic codes litter the screen and while they are often recognizable they are twisted in a way to serve to emblematize the post-traumatic nature of the main protagonists. The second scene of the film is a deliberately generic Hollywood thriller montage in which a theme straight out of a 1980s action film plays over a series of intercut shots of Det. Park interviewing suspects at his police headquarters. He is giving it his best shot but his questions do not seem to be getting him anywhere. His insecurities lead him to insulting the suspects, constantly referring to them as “Damn punks!” or making fun of their physical appearance. He is constantly undermined by the general inefficiency of his procedural skills. Even at this early stage it is easy to see that Park is very much a part of a societal system that he has very little control over. As a detective he has some authority which he exerts by acting rough with younger, less intelligent or less privileged people but once he is confronted by a suspect in suit his tone is immediately more respectful, as if speaking to an elder. He is embarrassed as he tries to mention the female victim’s sexual attractiveness.

The film playfully references Body Heat as Det. Park types up his report at a snail’s pace with his indexes. The content of the report seems trivial and the length of time it will take him to complete point to an inefficient use of time and resources. What’s worse is that when the ribbon is stuck it is the suspect beside him who is cowering in his chair that help him fix it. Instead of thanking him, Park berates him and calls him a “damn punk”. This is the first in a long line of instances where Park will be undermined by those around him when he doesn’t do something right. His reaction to this sort of emasculation throughout the narrative is invariably verbal abuse or physical violence.

The well-constructed montage continues with quick editing and the fast tempo theme as he makes his way through various odd-looking potential suspects. He is friendlier to his last interviewee and this could be for two reasons: he respects a youth that is trying to enter the Military Academy; or he is happy that his lunch is arriving. He argues with the delivery about having asked for a receipt at which point a colleague offers him another one, but this turns out to be a receipt for a bicycle shop and during this time the delivery boy has left. The same shot crossfades to the late in the evening where Park is now alone and sleeping at his desk, he wakes up briefly but goes right back to sleep. He does not seem too pressured to produce results in this murder investigation.
Det. Park asks for his receipt
Detective Such, who is Parks’ much more capable foil in the narrative is a carefully utilized character who at first embodies but later undermines typical generic codes. He is a investigator with a degree who comes from the big city (Seoul) to help with the case. He is very quiet, intelligent, he is a good detective and he is also quite cool, often looking very mysterious while crouched in the background smoking a cigarette. At first he makes many significant breaks in the case and identifies patterns and predicts further murders. However, at around the halfway point of the narrative he begins to hit dead ends and becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to catch the killer. Early on he demonstrates an unwavering faith in the bureaucratic system when he says that "Documents never lie", but this stance is compromised at the end when he receives the forensic test results that he believes will condemn the suspect that he is certain is guilty of the killings. When the results turn out to be negative he suffers a breakdown and says "this document is a lie, I don’t need it" and tries to administer vigilante justice only to be foiled by Det. Park, the characters have swapped roles in a way.

One scene in particular in the middle of the film is very effective in the way that it depicts both of the Detectives and their affiliation with the generic codes that helped to create them. Having followed bogus leads based on idiotic conjecture and superstition Det. Park and his equally pea-brained partner Inspector Jo have returned to one of the murder scenes at night in an attempt to decipher the face of the killer with the aid of a shaman’s scroll, some ink and some dirt. Clearly, for Park the investigation has hit rock bottom. They hear someone coming into the clearing and hide. It is Detective Suh, he lights a cigarette and begins to survey the crime scene, he has a tape player in his hand and turns it on. It plays the pop song that the killer has been requesting on the radio on those rainy nights before he commits a murder. Det. Park rightly, although hypocritically, points out to his partner that this is a ridiculous technique and it isn’t going to achieve anything when he says "we need science here!" as he hides evidence of his own folly by stuffing the shaman’s scroll into his jacket. Jo then points out "Still, he’s got style"; Suh may not be using a great investigative technique but he looks cool as he doesn’t achieve much, Bong is making light of the proclivity exhibited by Hollywood thrillers of mostly favoring style over substance. Bong injects a great deal of substance into his “generic" narrative but he utilizes the codes so well that he can make fun of the material while also using it to its fullest potential.

Soon another man is heard approaching and Suh ducks away also. This time it is an unknown man who removes a woman’s bra and panties from his underwear and lays them out carefully on the ground and begins to masturbate. It is our natural inclination to assume this might be the killer returning to the scene of the crime, Park even says so. Jo accidentally steps on a twig and after a pause, the man runs off and the Detectives give chase in a thrilling scene through the narrow back alleys of a rural village. They lose his trail and Park begins to berate Jo for scaring him off, he surprises them however by following the sound of dog barks and managing to find the trail of the suspect. This chase leads them into a busy rock mine, where everybody looks the same. Here it is Park who recognizes the man, against the odds, when he catches a glimpse of his red underwear.
Det. Park spots the suspect
Suh has been in control and successful with his techniques up to this point but in this scene it is the other detectives who succeed in apprehending the suspect. Park gloats with his eyes when Suh looks at him, surprised at his skill. Of course, during a ridiculous confession it becomes very clear that this man is most certainly not the killer and we are back where we started. The juxtaposition of these events is very interesting as after having criticized and subverted some generic tropes, Bong immediately injects a huge contrivance with the improbability of catching a sexual deviant at the exact spot of the crime while both detectives are there unaware of the presence of the other. It is most certainly an improbable scenario, yet it shows that Bong engages with these conventions (returning to the scene of the crime, psycho-sexual nature of the suspect, etc.) in a very affectionate manner and knows how to evince an effective thriller from them.


3 comments:

  1. What Tell Me Something subverts isn't the genre, since giallo or Hollywood noir mystery murders always had femme fatale archetypes. What Kim fails to note, is what's being subverted is the star iconography: Shim Eun-ha's rose to fame as nation's sweetheart is based on a virginal, lovable image (though she has played "bad girls" before, none of those were as "iconic" as her meter maid effervescent goddess of purity in Christmas in August.) It also subverts the star rhetoric of CIA itself: since the film's popularity cemented in public imagination of Han-Shim as the "golden couple" - so having her scheming to have his head among her collection, is the shocking twist.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a very good point, I saw Tell Me Something so long ago (one of the first Korean films I saw in the theatre, as part of a Tartan Asia Extreme roadshow) that I didn't really know who the stars were, so this never occurred to me.

    It's curious that Kim does not mention this star iconography angle, but I do think that the film subvert genre, pretty much all these K-Horrors do, that's why they are so interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "This revenge formula is quite prevalent in South Korean Cinema, and can be found in Beautiful Boxer " - do you mean the Thai movie?

    ReplyDelete