Memories of Murder (15)

Bad cops and good cops
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps it's the alliteration, but the title Memories of Murder (in the original, Sarineui Chueok) seems incongruously lyrical for a film which is anything but. This uncategorisable South Korean feature (Thriller? Satire? Social document?) is crime fiction at its muddiest, murkiest, most unabashedly sordid. Bong Joon-Ho's film is undeniably grisly at times: a handful of autopsy shots are guaranteed to make you blench, though they're mercifully brief. Yet the film is not really part of the currently notorious "extreme" wave of South Korean cinema, exemplified by directors such as Park Chan-Wook, whose soon-to-be-released Old Boy offers a highly-spiced brew of revenge, mutilation and the eating of a live octopus.

Perhaps it's the alliteration, but the title Memories of Murder (in the original, Sarineui Chueok) seems incongruously lyrical for a film which is anything but. This uncategorisable South Korean feature (Thriller? Satire? Social document?) is crime fiction at its muddiest, murkiest, most unabashedly sordid. Bong Joon-Ho's film is undeniably grisly at times: a handful of autopsy shots are guaranteed to make you blench, though they're mercifully brief. Yet the film is not really part of the currently notorious "extreme" wave of South Korean cinema, exemplified by directors such as Park Chan-Wook, whose soon-to-be-released Old Boy offers a highly-spiced brew of revenge, mutilation and the eating of a live octopus.

Despite its queasy edge, Memories of Murder is to all intents and purposes a procedural thriller in the classic vein. The story is based on a true unsolved case of the mid-1980s, a chain of rapes and murders.

I'll leave it to you to find out whether Bong Joon-Ho's cops crack the mystery, but suffice to say that his emphasis is on the essential unfathomability of events - the impossibility of unraveling threads of clues, or even of telling what properly qualifies as a clue at all.

The film begins in 1986 with the discovery of a young woman's body in a ditch. For provincial investigator Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho, a bull with a shambling touch of Columbo), the usual measures are called for: identify the likeliest suspect, then threaten to bury him, until he's ready to deliver his rehearsed confession. Park's favoured modus operandi is a mix of prejudice, phoney intuition (he prides himself on reading guilty faces with his "shaman's eyes"), desultory legwork and downright corruption.

Thanks to a rumour that his girlfriend passes on, Park hauls in a promising perp and is soon playing good-cop-bad-cop with a colleague specialising in the creative use of combat boots. Before long, the police team is triumphantly posing in the local paper, but the bodies keep coming in (in real life, there were no less than 10 victims). Things seem to look up with the introduction of a new commanding officer - squat, sharp-suited and serious - and of Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung), an upright, intellectual hot-shot detective from Seoul. But even they are soon infected by the chaos that dominates from the start. In one scene, Park runs flustered round a crime scene overrun with kids and locals while his colleagues tumble into ditches. A crime re-enactment for the benefit of the press turns into a furious scramble, filmed in slow-motion like a burst of action on a rugby pitch. Later, the investigators' bonding session degenerates into a drunken mess, with much falling over and puking behind sofas. Police incompetence and corruption haven't been so extreme and farcical on screen since last year's Argentinian film El Bonaerense; before that, you'd have to go back to Police Academy 6.

This is not to say that Memories of Murder is a comedy. It's funny in a morgue-humour sense, so grim that you have to laugh or you'd want to gouge your eyes out. By all accounts, what we get in the film is nowhere near as bizarre as the real-life circumstances, in which the frustrated police clutched at the maddest straws: at one point, they erected a scarecrow with a message warning the killer that his limbs would rot if he didn't turn himself in; a fortune teller also advised officers to bathe naked in the sea to placate the spirits. Bong doesn't go quite that far, but he goes far enough: since no hairs are found at the crime scene, Detective Park concludes the killer must have shaven pubes, and starts hanging around bathhouses to inspect men's crotches.

Even the team's seemingly legit methods look increasingly shaky. After a while, it is hard to tell which of their hard-won clues really means anything: rain, red dresses and a certain song played on the radio appear to have a key significance, but perhaps this is the result of the detectives' imagination, of their desperation to find patterns. As the story wanders down one twisting blind alley after another, Bong taunts us with the question of whether such horrific events can have any coherent, comprehensible explanation.

In its grimness and complexity, Memories of Murder is something like a Korean counterpart to James Ellroy's novels, where you feel dirty just being around the good guys. But the film distances itself from American crime investigation when Park explains that fancy brainwork may be necessary in a country the size of the States, but that in Korea, one can be hands-on: "Our land's the size of my dick. Korean detectives investigate with their feet" (or, indeed, boots). Certainly Park seems to think with his dick, but then it is implied that he lives in a society that treats women no less brutally than the killer does. The film goes to (one can only assume) parodic extremes in sidelining the one female officer on the team, whose main job is to make coffee and be leered at, but who comes up with one of the key insights into the case.

One dimension of the film that may be opaque to non-Korean viewers is the mid-1980s setting. Apart from certain police methods looking patently obsolete, more generally a permanent background tension - informed by fear of North Korean hostility - fills the film. Throughout, we are made aware of civil defence drills and emergency blackouts taking place, the blackouts matching the cops' permanently benighted condition. We get a strong sense of political unrest: a presidential drive-through turns into a riot and, at one crucial point in the investigation, police reinforcements are unavailable because all forces are busy suppressing a demonstration.

It is hard to gauge how much the murders themselves are presented as a metaphor for the state of South Korea at the time. But Memories of Murder certainly depicts a society in a state of nervous tension and economic uncertainty: the setting is a world of huge, crumbling factories, with suspects tracked down to squalid, bug-ridden quarters. All this makes for a visual mood predominantly grey-green and muddy brown, while the overall pacing is sober. Even so, there are some bracing flashes of stylistic bravado, notably a cheeky play on the Hitchcockian principles of suspense and revelation: a night pursuit concludes in a lovely visual pay-off in a grey quarry, a flash of a woman's pink knickers over a male suspect's waistband.

The film ends with a masterly closing touch that no mainstream mystery thriller would countenance: a big question mark and a sense of enduring unease. This, surely, is the stamp of a truly satisfying mystery thriller (or anti-thriller): the downright refusal to deliver the satisfaction we expect.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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