Showing posts with label memories of murder. Show all posts
Showing posts with label memories of murder. Show all posts

Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: MEMOIR OF A MURDERER Forgets to Untangle Its Intriguing Premise

By Pierce Conran

Just two weeks after V.I.P., Korean cinemas are getting another twist on the serial killer story with Won Shin-yeon’s new work Memoir of a Murderer, based on a 2013 novel by celebrated writer Kim Young-ha. Its name evokes the greatest Korean serial killer thriller of them all (though the Korean title actually translates to A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization), but this cat-and-mouse murder mystery and Alzheimer’s drama combo shares more in common with Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil.

Monday, February 2, 2015

News: MEMORIES OF MURDER Coming to the Small Screen

By Pierce Conran

It looks like Snowpiercer isn't the only Bong Joon-ho film getting the remake treatment. I don't normally cover TV news but I thought I'd make an exception for this. Considered by many to be one of the greatest Korean films of all time (it's my favorite), Memories of Murder is heading to the small screen in Korea as Signal.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Top 25 Korean Films of All Time

By Pierce Conran

I've thought about doing a list like this for some time but frankly found the task quite daunting. Having seen so many Korean films and there being so many that I love, drawing up a list inevitably meant cutting out a large number of films that I wish could get more recognition. But for our 4th anniversary (it's hard to believe it's been that long) I wanted to do something a little special. It certain did prove to be a difficult task...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Weekly Review Round-up (05/12-05/18, 2012)

A lot of reviews this week and many of them for a trio of action/war film which are currently making the rounds in North America, either in theatres or on the home video market.  I'm thrilled to see such interest in these titles but the fact that they all stem from the same genre doesn't really give me high hopes for expanding English-language consumers interest in the broader Korean film industry.  THese titles just confirm that Korean cinema, at present, is still viewed as a niche genre industry abroad, which couldn't be further from the truth.  Sigh...

Also from now on you may notice a few more Twitch reviews as I have been taken on as their Korean correspondent.



(Twitch, May 12, 2012)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Weekly Review Round-up (09/03-09/09, 2011)

A number of great reviews this week including a pair from refresh_daemon over at Init_Scenes on two old Yoo Hyeon-mok films 


(Unseen Films, September 5, 2011)

(Acid Cinema, September 9, 2011)

(, September 3, 2011)

(hancinema, September 3, 2011)

(, September 5, 2011)


(Hangul Celluloid, September 3, 2011)

(, September 3, 2011)

(WhatCulture!, September 7, 2011)

(The Hindu, September 7, 2011)

Oldboy, 2003
(CineAwesome!, September 3, 2011)

(, September 8, 2011)

(, September 6, 2011)

The Weekly Review Round-up is a weekly feature which brings together all available reviews of Korean films in the English language (and sometimes French) that have recently appeared on the internet. It is by no means a comprehensive feature and additions are welcome (email pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com). It appears every Friday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News, and the Korean Box Office UpdateReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part VII - The Host

Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker who is meticulous and knows what he is doing at all times, his intelligence and acute understanding of the needs of Korean audiences have made him incomparably successful in the theatre of contemporary Asian cinema.  With Memories of Murder he took the image of the emasculated male and he subverted and subjugated it and yet at the same time deified it to created a box office sensation that was choke-full of sociological pertinence.  His next film was even more successful and possibly more ambitious, certainly from a technical standpoint.  Essentially he took his lens and did for the South Korean melodrama what he had already done for masculine identity with Memories.  The Host is the highest-grossing Korean film of all time, and still sits comfortably on that laurel.  lt is a difficult film to label; when it was released overseas it was billed as a Jaws-like monster movie but to simplify it to that level does it a great injustice.  At its core it is a family melodrama that is punctuated and informed by the genre’s lengthy evolution in Korean cinema.  It is also monster movie, a comedy, and a political and social critique.  Song Kang-ho, although no longer employed within the civil service, reprises his stereotype as the post-traumatic emasculated male.  Here he is Park Gang-du, who runs a riverside store hut with his father, the archetypal family head, who was also in Memories playing the local chief inspector.  Song Kang-ho's character also has a young daughter and two siblings: a sister, who is a gifted archer and an alcoholic brother.

The family 'grieving' the loss of their youngest
The family is most definitely scarred. There is no mother as she has died, and the young daughter's mother ran off after she was born.  The archer sister is an extremely talented but intensely reserved individual who crumbles under the slightest amount of pressure.  The brother is a former student activist who has now more or less been cast out of society and idles his time drinking on unemployment. The father is also a mess and probably most like Gang-du, he desperately tries to keep the family together and attempts to stop all the in-fighting.  Whenever he opens his mouth, his demeanor seems to suggest the temperament and nobility of a wise old man but after a sentence or two the spectator along with his children recognize an old crackpot who takes himself more seriously than everyone else does.  The granddaughter is mortified by her embarrassing father and serves to represent a bored generation that has little respect for their parents; however she is portrayed in a positive light as she would likely outfox the whole bunch.  The narrative unfolds when a monster emerges from the Han River and after going on a rampage, steals the daughter.  Then against the oppressive and bumbling military rule which is attempting to contain the situation, as well as the antagonizing influence of the American military, the family draws together to retrieve their youngest and most valuable family member.  The film is extremely sophisticated in its approach to a plotline that could easily veer off course but it carries on with verve and winds up being so entertaining that it is totally irresistible.  The film, just like Memories, succeeds enormously in representing the Korean family and the engrained obstacles that it must face as a unit. "Commercially driven Korean melodramas serve to illustrate some of the defining features of Korean films and the societal contexts in which they are produced".

Song Kang-ho in The Host
The Host also displays a certain and very recent trend in South Korean, namely the process of using multiple genres within the same narrative and successfully creating post-modem and accomplished works of entertainment whose main focus is to deal with certain sociological and historical issues. Another such film is the delightfully off-kilter Save the Green Planet (2003), which involves aliens, a punk version of Over the Rainbow, extreme torture and a swarm of killer bees “Korean filmmakers found that by blending and bending existing genres, they could create works that appealed to audiences who wanted something new”.  The Host has been the most successful of these films and to date the most fully realized.  The film is highly melodramatic and manipulative but steers us very smoothly to certain emotions and conclusions on certain sociological issues that pervade the narrative and all the while it is highly amusing.  By blending these different genres, the hybrid that has resulted, much like the monster (or The Host of the title), is clear evidence of the "transmutation of historical genres that engage this process of recuperation".

The film's narrative ends with the death of the girl in a show down which harkens back to the brutal student demonstrations of the 1980s, it is highly emotional and while it is set in the present, it does bring us back to that time.  The loss of the new generation as well as the  destruction of the eldest generation (as the patriarch also perishes in the narrative) leaves the 684 generation forced to band together and face their own traumas without the help of others.  However, the film's coda makes light of this as a year later the events are replayed on the news but those watching turn it off as they are too busy filling their bellies.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Memories of Murder: Part V - Female Representations

"Yet this absence of the mother had hardly nullified her fascinating and spectral presence, which is structured around the male subject’s unconscious desire to return safely to his place of origin. Even though the mothers are not ubiquitously present they are central to the narratives”

Park's Lover...
The position of female characters within these narratives that centralize around the recuperation of male subjectivity is problematic at best. Volume wise, as characters they are few and far between but what they represent is what is more complicated to ascertain. Some essays attack the fact that all the females in these narratives are seemingly just mothers and whores, sometimes both rolled into the same character. Since these films are dealing predominantly with masculine trauma it is not surprising that women in them are depicted as one or the other of these central male-female relationships. In Memories there are extremely few female characters and they add very little to the plot, which is not to say they are not "ubiquitously present". We learn about Det. Park’s family and up until the very end, where he has built his own family away from his past, the only woman we see that he has something beyond a work-based relationship with is the women he is sleeping with. She embodies both "the mother and the whore", a condensed narrative of sorts. We first see her naked having sexual intercourse with Park and immediately following this they engage in a casual post-coital conversation while she administers him with a vaccine. She sates his sexual appetites as well as giving him medical care and thus embodies characteristics of both a mother and a lover. It is true that the women are present throughout in so much that they effect the psyches of the males and are important to their historical, social, and personal developments, but they hardly appear in physical form and are never fully distinguishable characters as they only serves as emblems of their relationships to the male protagonists "the images of women remain prefixed on the rigid bifurcated conventions of whores and mothers". Since the film is all about character types which symbolize a generation and its subjugation, and problematic relationships with itself it is not altogether surprising that this approach is used. However, it is true that women could play a greater role in a number of these narratives. lt could be that the filmmakers in questions are too concerned with there own personal relationships with the characters they depict on screen to be altogether fully aware of the feminine aspect of the societies they embody. Therefore there is "a misogynistic tendency against women“ that “constitutes perhaps the most visible and disturbing symptom of a cinema that has earned its reputation abroad as consisting primarily of "violent introspective melodramas".
...becomes his mother
The other women in the film have similar traits. Gui-ok, the woman at the station only serves to add a feminine touch to the investigation, she listens to a sappy radio show and notices a song that comes up (however this scene does serve to emasculate the stumped male detectives and superintendent) and also interviews the rape victim who isn’t comfortable around men. This rape victim is an interesting characterization as she has suffered from a very real form of trauma and is so scarred that she can no longer live in society or relate to it in any way. As she explains her experience to Gui-ok, the scene is intercut with flashbacks of her experience, which are terrifying and humiliating. Therefore she cannot be said to be a fleshed-out character in her own right, as she is merely a device from which to extract evidence. It seems that all the females in Bong’s narrative are little more than symbols but a look at his next two films (The Host and Mother) makes it clear that he has the ability to do justice to female representations.

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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part III - The Evolution of the Post-Traumatic Male

"Either physically handicapped or psychologically traumatized (sometimes both), many of the characters emblematized the period's frustration when protest against the military government was disallowed." 

Waiting for the inevitable force of time and society
There is an evident progression of character representation if we trace the relevance of this statement from the start of the New Korean Wave, through its end and into modern Korean cinema. At the start, characters that fit this description were either college students or working class protagonists who had no chance to engage positively or successfully with society. Both of these character types, while worlds apart, suffered from an inability of expression and were both systematically oppressed by a government which tolerated nothing but uniformity and obedience. 

This began to change over time and in the year 2000, Peppermint Candy, arguably one of the last New Korean Cinema films, was released.  In this narrative we follow a character's entire life story, although we do not engage too much with him personally as he is more of a window to see certain political events through. The trauma that his character suffers from emblematizes the many consequences of the social ills committed during the periods highlighted in the film. What is important, regarding the previous quote, is that he starts off with artistic and optimistic aspirations for the future but as his life becomes consumed and destroyed by the government and military  he is eventually forced into civil service, where he becomes a detective and is broken down to become part of the system as he begins to reign his own oppression by beating people senseless under the guise of the law. Only in the end of the narrative (the start of the film as it plays in reverse chronological order) does he recognize what society has done to him and what he has become. At this point he removes himself from the tarnished society he admits to living in and being a part of. In Peppermint Candy the suicide of the principal protagonist at the beginning of the narrative very clearly spells disaster, when the character puts himself on the road (more specifically a train track here) and waits for the inevitable force of time and society to finish off his chronological narrative. His induction and subsequent denial of society left him with the knowledge that he had no home to go to and any attempt at recuperation would have been impossible. What  happened in this narrative is that a character that started off by "emblematizing a period's frustration" with the government ends up with him becoming a part of it. 

Back at the original scene of the crime
The natural progression of this logic bings us to Memories of Murder which places the emasculated male as a part of the civil service (again a detective) right from the start and we are never given a clue  about his background or why he may have joined the police. We do not necessarily see him as an oppressive agent, although he is certainly not wothy of much praise, but he is part of the system and  he has no understanding of the consequences of most of his actions although to a cetain extent he learns to deal with this throughout the narrative. By the end, after suffering dificult psychological trauma he leaves the force (we do not know when or exactly why, although we can guess) to become a civilian. He becomes a travelling salesman, permanently doomed to travel the roads of South Korea. We last see him exactly where he started, still trying to make sense of something that has no easy answers on a road that seems long and narrow and may not lead anywhere at all.

"The depictions of emasculated and humiliated male subjects set the stage for their remasculinization", this may not necessaily be true of this narrative but by rejecting his image as a civil servant or pawn of an oppressive government he has to some degree become engaged with his own narrative. He understands the society he lives in that much better and sees how he relates to it however,  he is still far from recuperating his own male subjectivity, to quote Kyung "The dawning of a new modern era is normally punctuated by hope and optimism, but the weight of intense history and its attendant violence loomed so excessively large that it ended up traumatizing, marginalizing and denaturalizing men". The government and the history which it created was so vast and oppressive that, coupled with the pre-existing historical traumas from the rest of the century, it became impossible for post-traumatic males to be given any chance to heal their psychological wounds, within or without the civil service and the society it dominated.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part II - The Wandering Male

"Korea's emasculated and traumatic men pour out onto the road. The characters are visually encased with overwhelming landscapes and victimized by historical pathos, which refigure their constant wanderings."

While detective Park, unlike his cinematic predecessors, may not traipse around the peninsula aimlessly, he does wander around the narrative of the film and around the small town where the film takes place, and often find himself chasing down ridiculous leads that lead him nowhere. Ultimately, with the crime unsolved, he will end his journey, within the film's narrative at least, exactly where he started: on the side of the road, in the same overwhelming landscape, looking into the past having not perceived or attained any specific destination. It is also worth pointing out that Memories goes on step further than the Korean New Wave: as Kyun asserts, “while the hope for reclamation of home and recovery of individual persisted in these stories, the endings desperately fell short of reunions, love, and overcoming life’s obstacles.” , so while these film’s narratives can be followed by a spectator who is led to hope for resolution, Memories, which ironically is a far more commercial film, never even lets the audience hope for any kind of resolution since before entering into the film’s narrative, Korean spectators would already have known the events which the film was based on: a serial killing spree which was never solved. Even for a foreign spectator, a quick glance at the blurb would immediately fill one in on this information.

Park eyes a suspect
Memories is, of course, conceived around the notion of memory. However, it is not the memories of the film’s characters that are important, as we learn nothing of the histories of the film’s central protagonists. Any back story we receive on minor characters is only present to serve as a signifier to a historical moment or to symbolize a collective national trauma. The film is a representation of a national memory of historical traumas. Kyung, while examining South Korean films that directly reference important historical moments that have created a national collective trauma, speaks more broadly about the use of personal trauma and amnesia as a means of representing national trauma. “National cinemas in countries trying to come to terms with their own humiliating pasts by confronting the task of self-reflexively engaging a history that resists both remembrance and representation” , Memories does exactly this by explicitly representing a period of trauma and challenging, very successfully as evidenced by the film box office returns, the audience to remember their scarred history and to engage with it through the surrogate of the ever-popular and emblematic symbol of the emasculated male, here South Korea’s biggest star Song Kang-Ho.

“In any new national cinema that has long endured political terror, a “post-traumatic” identity often emerges whose mission is to help viewers remember what is too difficult to recuperate.”

The detectives work together
This happened in South Korean cinema starting in the late 80s when auteurs such as Park Kwang Su, Jang Sun Woo and later Hong Sang Soo and Lee Chang Dong made films that centralized the post-traumatic concerns of the masculine characters and shaped what are now seen as the typical stereotypes that are prevalent in modern Korean cinema. “The New Korean Cinema of the last two decades has incessantly pursued themes, characterizations and narratives that center on a particular notion of subjectivity: the image of an individual modern man desperate to free himself from institutional repression, familial responsibilities, and personal anxieties” , today this can still be identified as one of the main focuses of Korean cinema. While not as prevalent since the beginning of the new millennium, it has found a very prominent place within the newly commercialized hybrid of domestic cinema. Any film that deals mostly with male characters cannot help but be influenced by this dominant strand of theory and most of these films will corroborate the masculine position as created and formulated by the cinema of the 90s but some, indeed very few, may try to challenge it. Most notably perhaps in this new sphere of filmmakers is Kim Ki Duk, who, while often labeled a nihilist and a sexist, engages far more with the female gender in South Korean cinema than almost any other director, however, he has not seen success beyond the festival circuit and is not particularly in his native land. The trend can go further and infiltrate films aimed at women, such as the ever popular melodrama, which at this point seems equally informed by the golden age of the Korean melodramas of the 1960s but also by Korean cinemas’ masculine identity rhetoric of the 1990s. While it is unfortunate and somewhat typical that a ground-breaking amalgamation of idioms that works successfully to examine a nation’s scarred history would then be invisibly assimilated into mainstream and commercial multiplex fare, it has also served some purpose in contrast with many successful national cinemas. The result: South Korea’s biggest blockbusters have a much healthier propensity for socially interacting with their audiences. Bong Joon-Ho with Memories and The Host has been at the forefront of this but other filmmakers such as Park Chan-Wook and Kim Ji-Woon have also made extremely successful films that can’t be ignored with regards to their social or historical subtexts. It also helps that South Korea, besides Iran, is the most cinephilic nation in the world. How else could an art film like Lee Chang Dong’s latest, Secret Sunshine (2007) be a runaway hit at the box office? An award at Cannes is worth a lot of money for a Korean film, indeed it is a symbol of national pride. Korean auteurs who have won awards at prestigious festivals have made a name for themselves within Korea and their foreign recognition has invited them to become bigger names within an industry which is mostly motivated by finance. Central to this is the continued popularity of the post-traumatic male who has made the leap from the art house to the mainstream without too much damage. Song Kang Ho, as already mentioned, is the biggest box office draw in the country and most likely this is because he has come to embody the traumas felt by Korean males and presents them in a highly sympathetic package as well as injecting a heavy dose of humour into his performances. “He is a camouflaged man who cannot easily reveal his past, a past that surely embodies a “trauma””, which Slavoj Zizek defines as “an impossible kernel which resists symbolization, totalization, symbolic integration” . In most films of this nature the spectator is hardly ever presented with any background information on the central male protagonists and we must see them less as original characters and more as sociological and historical symbols. Throughout the course of a narrative we observe how they interact or fail to interact with the people, circumstances, events and societies which surround them and through this we are shown a window into the scarred emotional psyche of legions of Korean males, particularly of the 386 generation. There are also other actors who have come to be famous and known for these kinds of characters, namely Choi Minh Sikh and Sol Kyung Gu.

Detective Park explains a theory
Bong Joon Ho, more than any other New Korean Cinema luminary, probably takes after Park Kwang-Su. His more or less exclusive focus on masculine identity  (within Memories in any case) and its social and historical context very much continues where Park left off. “Park’s films focused on the problematics of Korea’s repressive history and present reality by featuring male characters” , more importantly, because of Bong’s enormous popularity, Park’s ability to align intellectuals with the minjung (people) has percolated into Bong’s aesthetic and therefore proliferated into a wider audience. His structure and ideas are extremely intelligent and developed but they are not so far removed that they are lost on the public. Korean audiences have engaged fully with his narratives and characters and have celebrated him for it. Detective Park cannot find a stable ground for himself, by trying so hard to conform with the surrounding aspects of his society, he has created an uncomfortable balance for himself that ultimately pushes him out of this closed society altogether. The sight of Park on the road at the end of the film strengthens this and hints at the destiny of such a character in Korean film. They are never allowed to return home or recuperate any of their male subjectivity.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Memories of Murder: Part I - Introduction


 “There is a sight of horror that invokes the loss of… …memory and sanity.”

Kim Kyung-hyun, one of the foremost scholars on the depiction of masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema, argues for the “narcissistic recasting of masculine figures”  in the new wave of Korean cinema as a means of dealing with post-traumatic identity in a heavily emasculated culture. For him, this was a prevalent trait in South Korean cinema in the 80’s through to the 90’s but beyond this point, as he states:

“The Korean film industry since 1999 has scrupulously followed the path of Hollywood and has shown more interest in making deals and formulaic genres than in innovating and devoting itself to the creation of art.”

A young boy snatches a cricket

Kim’s arguments for representation of masculine identity in Korean cinema before this point are brilliant and insightful but I would argue that they do not stop at the dawn of the most popular era of Korean cinema. The male characters constructed by New Wave auteurs such as Park Kwang-su, Lee Chang-dong, Jang Sung-woo and Hong Sang-soo still exist in the more generic Korean cinema of today. I will try and demonstrate this through a detailed examination of Bong Jong-Ho’s 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder (hereby Memories), which, while ostensibly a film about the chase for an elusive serial killer in a provincial town in northern South Korea, is in fact a revisionist exploration of a post-traumatic and confused South Korean society which is attempting to come to terms with its scarred national identity but ultimately fails to do so due to its stunted cultural and political growth. However, Memories, which was an enormous box office hit in Korea, is in fact a hugely effective thriller which affectionately engages with all of the codes and tropes associated with its genre.

Since 1999, the South Korean film industry has positioned itself in a more commercial direction and has subsequently become one of the most successful industries in the world and one of the only ones to best Hollywood domestically. To dismiss its social relevance on this basis however, would be a mistake. Within the limitations of genre and tried and tested formula, contemporary South Korean films have had an equally articulate social agenda and with higher production values and attendance rates they have arguably been more successful in conveying their ideas to Korean and international audiences than previous art house fare that may have never found an audience beyond the festival circuit. From Joint Security Area (Park, 2000) to The Host (Bong, 2006), South Korean films that have successfully engaged with social issues have consistently broken records and topped the domestic box office.

Memories opens by stating that the following events are based on a true story in a time set under a military dictatorship. This information is key to understanding Bong’s motives, the fact that the story happens in 1986, in a difficult period of South Korea’s history, informs almost all of the narrative at an implicit level. Camouflaged under the guise of formulaic genre, there lies an extraordinarily dense sociological narrative.

The man tries to shoo the children away

Before the first shot, we hear the wind and bustle of a field. As the image fades in, we see a young boy crouched in the field examining a lone cricket before snatching it. Then we hear a tractor coming from the distance, the young boy also does, so he gets up and the camera moves up with him. At this point, when we see the golden wheat field in the summer eve, a nostalgic melody seeps into the soundtrack. The boy walks out onto the dirt trail where down the road he sees the tractor and some children playing beside it in a burnt out car. As the tractor passes them, they follow it and jeer its driver with taunts of “Junk car!”, all the while the music and beautiful cinematography evoke a heavy and heady nostalgia. Next we see that a man is riding in the back of the tractor. He is middle-aged, a little chubby and he is smoking a cigarette, he tries to shoo the children away but this only inspires more raucousness on their part, so he taunts them back with hand gestures. As the tractor nears the young boy, it stops and its driver and passenger disembark and walk past him. The man in the back ruffles the child’s hair as he passes. He then crouches down at a roadside ditch that is partially covered in concrete. The music stops.

Aside from being an extraordinary display of cinematic technique, these opening few minutes hint at a lot of the themes that will be explored throughout the narrative. The style employed evinces a highly effective nostalgic air, which is universal but ultimately very specific to South Korea. The film is set in 1986, in a troubled time of recent South Korean history. So while the music and cinematography imply a sweet reminiscence, the sight of a burnt out car, decrepit tractor and youths that seemingly do not respect their elders injects a bitter tone into what ultimately becomes a very bittersweet narrative. Aside from the tone, the location itself is foregrounded and very central to the film's ideological motives. Not only do we start in a wide open space and a wheat field but on a small dirt road that may not have a real destination.

Park Doo-man crouches down at a roadside ditch

Memories is a film that is part of the new, more commercially viable trend of Korean cinema. It is of a very high production calibre and was ultimately hugely successful but its roots are clearly evident from the start as it harkens back to the New Korean Wave that manifested itself in the mid to late 1980s and probably finished with the release of Peppermint Candy (Dong) in 2000. A lot of the films in this movement were road movies that followed emasculated males that suffered from post-traumatic anxiety and wandered aimlessly and ultimately towards death or insanity. Kim in his seminal exploration of male post-trauma, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, states "The loss of homes or the fragmentation of families suffered by many then amplifies the meaning of the road as a site of neither transit or freedom. It is where people suffer: traumatized beyond recuperation, disenfranchised without a place to return, and the prospects of leaving behind the road unrealizable" , much of this anxiety stems from the difficult separation of the Korean peninsula but also speaks of the emasculation of males during the Korean War and other military occupations throughout the 20th century. Especially that of family men whose families were broken as wives became prostitutes for foreign soldiers and the men could do nothing but look on.

In Memories, the central protagonist is Detective Park Doo-man, played by Korea's biggest star, the surprisingly normal and bumbling Song Kang-ho, who effectively took on the mantle of Park Joong-hoon, the mainstay star of the New Korean Wave. His character, like so many that he plays, is not particularly attractive. Although not wholly unmasculine, he isn't very smart and is easily moved to jealousy or ridicule. However, he is an affable character who is not completely lost and is therefore indicative of a legion of post-traumatic males, at least coming from the perspective of New Korean Cinema filmmakers.

A cricket on the mutilated body

Back to the opening sequence, as we watch with the child as Park investigates the scene of what turns out to be a gruesome crime when we see a young women's naked body in an advanced state of decomposition, this is the first of many examples of visceral contrast in the film. It clearly places us in a state of discomfort that can't be shaked throughout the narrative. Within these opening minutes it is quite clear the direction that the film wishes to pursue. We are entering a time in history that would have coincided with the youth of the filmmaker and while beginning in a nostalgic tone we are quickly subjected to the horrors that allegorically represent the time. On top of this, Bong also challenges the masculine character created by New Korean Cinema, so what we have is a highly revisionist exploration of history from the male perspective of the 386 generation, which is the term for people who were born in the 60’s, went to college in the 80s and are now in their 30s (this terms can be labelled on most contemporary Korean filmmakers). The opening scene also adds another link between these two states of nostalgia and revisionism: the opening shot has the boy snatching a cricket, a minute later we see that he is holding a jar full of crickets and just afterwards, once the mutilated body comes into focus, we see that there is a cricket on it. Not only does this contrast the two states of remembrance but it also associates death with the past as well as informing the narrative of the military dictatorship that the film’s story unfolds under. The boy can in fact represent both nostalgia and the military dictatorship, this becomes more pertinent when he is shooed off but refuses to leave. This could represent the omniscient presence of the government and its reach into everybody’s affairs. He also never says anything, save mimicking every word of detective Park: symbolic of a government which refuses to explain itself and subjugates all its civil employees. Park clearly feels unable to do anything about this mockery and lets it lie. The scene ends with him looking at the corpse and then directly at the boy. He tilts his head and squints his eyes and then the boy does the same. Park looks defeated already and is clearly terrified of the task of finding the killer which now faces him. At this point the nostalgic melody comes in again and we cut to the title shot which is a perfect postcard image of the wheat field and the huge space in which it lies.

The title shot, a perfect postcard

As any good opening scene should, this one hints at all of the major themes that will be explored throughout the narrative and is therefore a good sounding board to start off a discussion about post-traumatic masculine identity in contemporary South Korean cinema. Since there are many small strands that need to be addressed in order to get a full picture of the representation of males and Bong’s sociological motives throughout the running time of Memories, I have broken down this essay into six short chapters followed by a more comprehensive conclusion. The first thing to look at and what has already been mentioned in the dissection of the opening scene is the loss of home and it’s impact upon a male generation in South Korea and how the principal protagonist is used to elucidate upon this phenomenon. Next I will discuss the evolution of the character of the post-traumatic male from its first notable appearances in the films of the 1980s up to its most modern incarnation in Memories. Following on from this, a look at Bong’s use, adherence to and subversion of generic staples and codes and how his approach strengthens the sociological impact of the film. Then we will look at the compromised representation of females within these male-dominated narratives and specifically whether or not they are only symbolic and cannot be seen as whole characters. In the next chapter, I will present a case for Bong’s use of psychoanalysis as a means of representing a scarred national identity within a very specific historical framework and how the films’ specific genre ultimately leads to this. Before the conclusion I will briefly examine Bong’s subsequent film The Host and determine whether or not his sociological agenda has continued into an equally important aspect of Korea’s society, namely by representing family with melodrama. Finally in the conclusion I will wrap up all of the arguments presented throughout with a detailed analysis of the closing scenes of the film which serves as an excellent bookend to the film and closing point to the essay.