Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Memories of Murder

Playing out against the backdrop of South Korea’s 1980s pro-democratic public protests, Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder examines a grisly series of unsolved murders in the city of Hwaseong. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines tabloid tale with style and intelligence to spare, even if does initially feel overweighted with the clichés of the moribund serial killer movie. We’ve got two rival cops—one who plays by the rules, and one who, of course, does not—and an unidentified murderer whose violence involves all sorts of arbitrary gimmicks, in this case the requisite that each murder be triggered by hearing a specific song on a rainy night and then encountering a woman wearing red. A happy confluence of these elements occurs more often than you would think, although I wonder how many rainy evenings he must have squandered looking for a red dress, or how many times he must have heard that song on a sunny day while watching crimson-bedecked ladies strolling past his front yard, so frustrated he just wanted to cry. The secret meaning of this film is that obsessive-compulsive disorder is not necessarily a detriment to achieving your dreams.

Okay, that’s just one secret meaning of this film. The other is that Kafka’s The Trial is possibly even more disturbing when told from the perspective of the prosecution. In Memories of Murder, police terrorize citizens into confessing to crimes, brutishly manufacturing guilt when there is none to be found. At first, a mentally challenged young man is manipulated into a confession, and then a pervert with a fondness for red underwear and deep-woods self-abuse is picked as a likely killer. But no matter how the police try to make it so, no one in the town seems to be actually guilty. The violence becomes a sign of the police force’s failure as they flail against an opponent they can’t defeat. They’re impotent authority figures—a point that Bong emphasizes, rather sardonically, when one of the detectives is forced to amputate his leg (his good one, too, the one he uses to kick the shit out of suspects). The real perversity of this film is that Bong tells this story from the perspective of the cops, creating a haze of empathy that almost lets you forget that these guys are forging evidence and torturing people in the police station basement. Such is life in a police state: the guilty live free, while only the innocent suffer.

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