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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part VIII - Conclusion

“The recovery of the self remains as the objective in these films, but … the subjectivity reconstituted or denied in the end is the man’s alone" this may be true of the films of Park Kwang-su and Jang Sung-woo in the late 1980s and early 1990s but Memories does not abide by this strict dictum. In the end Det. Park is left where he started and while he has moved on, clearly nothing has been resolved and the past is as confusing as ever. More importantly, since we know nothing of his personal trauma beyond the work-related serial killings investigation, it would be inaccurate to say that his position at the end of the film’s narrative is a conclusion to his character’s progression. For the film is scarcely about the individual, he is only a symbolic vessel, a metaphorical amalgamation of the post-traumatic masculine id of South Korean males. His experience during the narrative is not his life story; it is a window into a frail national psychology circa 1986. Unlike Peppermint Candy (1999), for example, the bulk of the film (everything expect for the coda) happens in too short of a timeframe and showcases too few personal interactions and relationships to be a comprehensive portrait of one man, it is about a time and a place. Det. Park is our guide to the past and through him we must experience the nation’s subjective conscious. Characters like Park "provided an unconscious sense of urgency through their inability to articulate and their ineffectuality that metaphorically was symptomatic of the terror and trauma ushered by the military regimes“. They continue to do so in the new millennium in films like Memories.

"The l980s was the decade of post-trauma - one that anxiously awaited the replacement of a father-figure of South Korea and the implementation of a social structure alternative to capitalist relations, both of which would not materialize.”

An unsecured crime scene
Memories, made in 2003, unfolds in this period of post-trauma as a means of recuperation. Like other national cinemas, according to Teshome Gabriel “the past is necessary for the understanding of the present, and serves as a strategy for the future". South Korean cinema is not a third world cinema by any means. However, its turbulent past has created somewhat similar anxieties for filmmakers to elucidate upon. The past is the primary point of contention in a large proportion of contemporary South Korean cinema. Most films ignore the past and focus on an idealized present but many cannot let go of a past so traumatic that it can’t help but shape the ever-changing present and by extension their narratives.

Trying to save the evidence
There is an early scene in Memories which showcases the confusion of a society within a very difficult moment of collective trauma. It is a virtuoso two minute steadicam shot that is minutely choreographed and perfectly executed, furthermore it includes a wealth of information. We stand by Park's side, who is smoking a cigarette in a field as he is shouting instructions and giving out to officers for not having roped the area off. The music from the previous scene has trailed off at this point. Another officer calls him over to the dirt road where he shows Park evidence, some footprints. Park circles the area with a stick and enquires as to the whereabouts of the forensics team. He heads back down to the field still shouting questions and instructions; he also refers to the crime scene as "total chaos". We then see a number of cars parked by the main road and notice officers and civilians freely roaming the crime scene. A new character, the chief inspector of police, makes his grand entrance by falling down from the road onto the field, immediately undermining his presence. Park notices him and utters "Jesus, look at him" under his breath. At this point, a number of little children run by him into the field and he shouts at them to leave. Now we move to the centre of the field and we see the victim, dressed in red and dead on the ground. A number of people have gathered around her, including children. The inspectors start to give out about the presence of reporters. They share some brief words before Park hears a tractor behind them. He turns his head and sees that it is heading straight for the footprints. He calls out to it to stop and then starts jogging over to it but the driver never hears him and destroys the evidence. Park discards his cigarette in frustration and is then informed of the arrival of the forensics team, Park curses them as he makes his way to that side of the field only to see them slide down as well. Park calls them "sliding fools". The chief inspector is back in shot and seems somewhat bewildered, he turns around and as he is more or less facing the camera says "What’s going on?" and this is the end of the shot/scene.

"What's going on?"
In this scene, we are given much evidence to condemn the procedural skills of the investigators. Nothing seems to be done right and no protocol is being followed, it is slightly humorous to witness the bumbling efforts of these detectives but the muted colors and the grotesque sight of the corpse severely offset this notion. It is telling to see that no one is listening to these supposed figures of authority because to them all they stand for is subjugation to a hated dictatorship and way of life. They are not attacked since they are not mean-spirited and do not impose hardships on the civilians, they are simply ignored. The scene also underscores the uneasy relation between police and the media. We know beforehand that this is a small town and that these were the first serial killings in South Korea, so it can be fair to state that they had simply never dealt with this type of situation before. This is evident throughout the film, as everyone seems to get a little better at their job as the case wears on but at the same time we are also predisposed with the knowledge that they will never accomplish their mission.

A black hole, symbolic of a shadowy past or uncertain future?
The climactic scene, which is set in 1986, shows Detective Suh, after having seen the dead body of the little girl that he had grown to know over the narrative, drag the prime suspect to the train tracks by a tunnel and mercilessly beat him. Having never seen him use violence before, this heavy outburst is all the more shocking. He has become a desperate man and is at his wits end. As he beats him, there is a shot of the tunnel that eerily moves zooms in. It is very ominous and represents the end of the narrative, a big black hole. Det. Park comes down waiving the document whose content is expected to inculpate the suspect, but this turns out to be inconclusive. This drives Suh over the edge and he is about to shoot the suspect but Park stops him and then stares into the would-be killer’s eyes, desperately trying to figure him out but finds nothing and lets him go. A train comes and separates them and once it has past the suspect is already escaping through the tunnel. Suh runs down and shoots and Park stops him again. They both look down the tunnel and see the man lying on the ground, seemingly dead. But than he gets up and runs into the dark, he is a confusing enigma. The truth is lost forever. It is an extremely dramatic scene which shows us how these male characters have hit the end and may not recuperate any male subjectivity. Suh, as the supporting character has a neater arc where he does change, a little for the worse. Systems he trusted in have collapsed around him and have left him empty. Whereas Park, as the more emblematic character of a generation, hasn’t really changed throughout the narrative but after what he has seen through his eyes (as they are constantly in close-up throughout the film), the trauma has built up so much that he is forced to move on, as we see in the coda.

Searching for answers in vain
After a few shots which briefly establish his family life and line of work, Park stops off at the field which was the site of the first murder. It is a beautiful, sunny day and he slowly walks over to the ditch where the narrative began. He crouches down and peers into it much the same way as he did at the beginning of the film and after a while, a young girl asks what he is looking for, he says nothing and than she mentions that a man had recently done the same thing and had stated that he had "done something here long ago". At first, Park is panicky and quickly his Detective instincts kick in. He asks the girl questions about the man, her answers are less than concrete and after looking around for a while with his darting eyes, Park looks directly into the camera, lost and bereft of answers, and it is here that the film ends.

Back at the scene of the crime, back on the road
Aside from being a visual bookend to the film, this scene does effectively adumbrate the journey, or lack thereof, that Park has undergone. After having extricated himself from the force he comes back to the scene of the crime, seemingly just like the criminal, and although presented with this new information he still lacks the knowledge of how to process it and thus he looks directly at us, the only moment that the fourth wall is broken in the film, as if he is pleading us to help him find his path. "The subjects in Korean painting never seem to avoid eye contact with the viewer. On the contrary, it seems that they accept their role of represented subject, and an audience must accept their role of viewer. This is true also of cinema”, one could side with this interpretation with regards to the final shot, as the intertextuality of the film anchors this as a South Korean film as opposed to just a genre film. By the end of his trajectory, Park is unable to recuperate his subjectivity on his own. It takes very little for the historical trauma he experienced to overwhelm him again and he is incapable of knowing what to do about it. This is why he must end in the narrative exactly where he started because he cannot find his own path, he cannot go anywhere and he has no real destination. While his journey in the narrative has been entirely cyclical, in the end, through his frustrations and failings, we the spectators have gone on an incredible and complex journey with him which has enabled us to delve deep into the repercussions of an immense collective national trauma. We begin and end on a road and like so many characters of the Korean New Wave before him, Park finds himself on it, constantly in search of a home which has been destroyed.

Park looks directly into the camera
Therefore, the film offers up the conclusion that there is no easy way to deal with the serious psychological trauma which has stemmed from countless historical atrocities that South Korean males have suffered in the 20th century. Many people cannot simply forget about these traumatic events and their lives and behavior are heavily informed by this scarred history. However, it is also not simply ignored, with dozens of films released every year that deal with these intense psychological and sociological issues. The fact that these demons are being faced in such a direct fashion is proof that as a nation South Korea is ready to move on from their traumatic history and clearly have successfully been pulling away from it in recent times. In terms of the future of South Korean cinema, it remains to be seen how these historical events will be dealt with by subsequent generations that may not have been personally scarred by these events. Although since social problems are so keenly addressed in contemporary South Korean cinema, it is difficult to imagine that these modes of filmmaking will be forgotten or cast off any time soon.


2 comments:

  1. Wow, amazing. Great analysis. When I watched the movie I felt it had so much more to say than I could understand. Now I can understand it much more.

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