The Korean Killer
by Aritra Dey
Trying to unravel the jigsaw isn’t an easy task
TLR Rating: 9 Reels.
Serial killing is always an intriguing subject. The motive, the modus operandi, the psychology of the killers and their web like complex mind has aroused curiosity in many people. Several conspiracy theorists and other factions have devoted their entire lives in cultivating these strange people. Notable names like ‘Jack the Ripper’, ‘Boston Strangler’ and ‘Zodiac’ do the rounds quite often but there are several more which eludes the spotlight and remain in obscurity. The people behind the investigation face the brunt always, especially if the case turns out to be an unsolvable one. The media and the people hound them and the investigation department experience an inexplicable stress. The 2003 South Korean film, Memories of Murder by Bong Joon-ho narrates one such grueling case of serial killing and its investigation.
Memories of Murder is one captivating film, taking the audience through the case frame by frame, making them toil with the detectives as more and more bodies get discovered. What started out as a seemingly stray case of rape and murder escalates quickly in the Korean suburb and becomes one chilling period where women are positively scared to venture alone in the night. The film expertly explores the psychological stress the investigators succumb to throughout the tenure of the case and how personal it becomes to them. Detectives Park Doo-man and Seo Tae-yoon begin the investigation and having no prior experience to such a serious matter, fails to collect the evidence properly. Bong Joon-ho shows the simplistic nature of the villagers and the innocence of the children in one frame as they are unable to comprehend the seriousness of the matter and treat it as a new excitement in their lives. The mentality of the small town police forces who are keener to close the case rather than solving it accurately is portrayed sarcastically through the antics of the local detectives as they find a suitable suspect and then go way out to torture and extract a confession from him, much to the annoyance of grim Seoul detective Cho Yong-koo. The city detective is the only sensible person in the trio, showcasing his inclination towards logic and sense of duty. The likeness to American FBI methods is mockingly drawn by the local duo. This constant bickering gives the sense of cold rivalry that existed during the military dictatorship something which Bong Joon-ho was eager to point out. Ego, frustration and ineptness collide as the case progresses and more bodies are dropped. When even the sensible Cho Yong-koo breaks down and becomes obsessed with one particular suspect, the audience knows that the police were defeated mentally and only a miracle would save them. The case had taken everything from them –the dropkick happy Seo spent the rest of his days as an invalid, Cho’s whereabouts were unknown and Park took up the job of a businessman after quitting the force.
The way the suspense is built separates this Korean masterpiece from other investigative thrillers like ‘Zodiac’ and ‘Seven’. The tension mounts steadily as each layer is peeled. The connection to the color red and the rainy nights sets the course for the investigation and the first suspect gets arrested. Further clues are revealed and the case winds along the zigzag road to revelation. Only the end seemed more and more elusive as progress was made. The chill out of the suspense is tangible and the audience can feel it creeping up stealthily as they sit on their couches. The sudden proclamation of the dreaded song being broadcasted on radio and the ominous sign of the raindrops gives goose bumps and the audience can feel the scent of murder in the air. A woman walks through the deserted paddy fields singing in the rain when an eerie whistle accompanies her. The terror on her face says it all and the shiver runs down the spine of the viewers and the reeds rustle and the creeping predator launches itself at her. The element of fear for something unseen or hidden is inherent in man and Bong Joon-ho exploits it tremendously. The killer is never revealed or hinted at and remains an unknown entity, almost like a myth throughout, much like the Loch Ness Monster. The Bengali Novel, ‘The Mountain of The Moon’ by Bhibutibhushan Bandhopadhyay has a similar obscurity albeit under different circumstances. This plays excellently with the film and the viewer is faced with the unsurmountable stress of finding out an unknown adversary. The final victim is chosen with impunity, a dire choice between the affectionate ones of the two principal detectives in this case. The crossing of the two women, and the way the option is chosen is actually frightening and a few yelps from the audience won’t be surprising. This shadowy element is sorely missing from the Hollywood counterparts. Perhaps the lure of box-office success is too much to ignore. Despite the unknown, Boon Joon-ho ends the film with a sense of closure, as Park looks down the very gutter where the first victim’s body had been found, and a little girl passing by looks curiously at him. That particular scene had the audience almost expecting another body or at least a clue hidden down there. Park reminisces the case as the emptiness rage around him. The Memories of Murder haunt him endlessly.
Credit goes to the talented director Boon Joon-ho and his cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo for his sense of art in this thriller. The opening scene is irrefutable proof of his immaculate vision. The camera starts from the view point of a young boy as he peeps from a yellow field and sees an approaching tractor. It pans over to the road where the tractor is arriving at a distance. The tractor is then seen along with some kids who chase it gleefully. The back of the vehicle is shown where a portly man (the local detective) is sitting and gesturing to the kids. Finally it comes back to the kid as he sees the vehicle trundle past him. The setup of the opening scene is fundamental for every film and Boon Joon-ho nails it spot on. The tension he builds during the staking of the helpless woman in the field of reeds is paramount. The sweep of the windy reeds creates an aura of an invisible presence and somehow transmits the feeling of someone present just beyond the line of vision to the audience. The almost bird of prey like point of view from the treetop as the killer chooses his final victim with relish is fearsome and the swoop in is terrifying. The use of the fields as the places of sodomy is ironical – the seemingly peaceful beauty turning into a blood ground. The film ends in the same way as it began and in the same yellow field. The gutter remained intact and as Park Doo-man bends to check, the audience is filled with dread. But all seems calm, until a little girl relays a certain information and then the world spins around suddenly. The entire effect was spellbinding and only the viewer can understand what the final words signify to the man who had sacrificed his soul for the investigation. The entire aura of the movie rests on its unpredictability and the climax does nothing to take that away.
Memories of Murder has to be the best investigative thriller and it beats out its competitors by a fair mile. ‘Spotlight’ is a decent enough attempt but never matches the suspense and the fear factor which ruled the 140-odd minutes if this Korean masterpiece. The performances by the lead cast were enchanting enough and the lack of heightened expressions highlighted the cluelessness of the detectives extremely well, something which the clever stars of Hollywood failed to bring. Asian cinema has produced a gem through this wonderful investigative thriller. It is a must watch for anyone who likes to exercise his/her brain over a litter of clues. The Sad Letter song will haunt forever for sure.
The author is a software engineer at Infosys and a passionate film and football buff, with a special interest in deciphering the literature behind the movies.