By Nathanael Griffis
Back in 2007 I was starting to build my appreciation of foreign films, and then I was shown Joon-ho Bong’s film The Host, and I was blown away. Here was a film that balanced humor, horror, melodrama, sci-fi, and politics, with flawed, complex characters as are rarely seen in cinema. Since then, though, I haven’t seen anything else by Joon-ho Bong, but always wanted to. So I’ve literally been prancing around my apartment like a little school girl giddy with excitement. Thankfully, I was not disappointed, and I’m beginning to suspect the Joon-ho Bong may be one the great filmmakers of our day.
Memories of Murder is based on a string of unsolved serial murders and rapes that took place in 1986 in a rural province of Korea. The detectives assigned to solve the murder were inept, to say the least. The police force was really not capable of solving a crime of this complexity with the technology at hand. Ultimately, it’s a frustrating moment in Korean history because it was never solved, nothing was accomplished and the countryside was left scarred. It’s a frustrating film, because we see characters go from inept and abusive, to sympathetic and inspired, but still they fail.
This is where Joon-ho Bong is a master. He takes a story that is filled with mean, ugly characters in a disturbed world and doesn’t sugar coat their flaws. His characters, even the abusive cops (for whom he never apologizes), are so viscerally real that while you may not relate to their inhuman, callused stupidity, you recognize it as a glimpse of humanity. The two main rural detectives don’t gather evidence; they torture their suspects into confessing–nothing much beyond punching and kicking, mind you, but inexcusible behavior nonetheless. As a viewer, at first you don’t fully question their motives, but as you see them fail you start to understand the frustration of the country people. The detectives themselves become hardened and depressed as the truth becomes lost amidst their confusion and failure, but it’s their humanizing realization of their faults and acceptance of them that draws you in. It’s challenging to watch as you begin to empathize with the very people who have allowed the a serial killer to escape.
As much as the credit for presenting a complex story goes to Joon-ho Bong, the same credit is due to the acting of Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, and Roe-ha Kim. Kang-ho Song especially stands out as Detective Park, a self absorbed detective who is not adept enough to catch the killer. It’s haunting to watch him balance comedy and drama, which is something he did in The Host as well. I’ll never forget the scene in The Host where the family grieves for their missing girl as they writhe across the floor in front of her wreathed portrait–I didn’t know whether to cry and laugh, so I ended up doing both. Kang-ho Song started off his acting career as a stage comic, and he’s translated those skills in improv into a unique acting style. In an interview he explained that he’ll improvise most scenes he’s given, as long as the director agrees, because real emotion, whether comedically or dramatically presented, is dynamic and not static. It reminded me of Robert Altman, and the more I think about it the more of Altman I see in Joon-ho Bong. He encourages his actors to improvise within the boundaries of the script. It’s a collaborative style that lends a raw, human feel to the acting and filmmaking. They even improvised several of the fight scenes in this film, to lend a quality of realness to them, so that when a person cringes, they’re truly in pain.
Memories of Murder is a complex and agitating film. It shook me to think that police could mess up so much. A treatise against corrupt law enforcement is common enough, but the film evolves into something. Slowly we see an examination of human nature, an attempt to explain the darkest sides of beings and how we cope with them. There is no tidy ending. The audience has to struggle with the reality of what occurred as much as the characters do. It was not what I was expecting, but that was the director’s intention. We are given a picture of rural Korea so honest, bold, and respectful that you sit up and take notice. Joon-ho Bong knows that character is what is compelling in film. He writes and directs with such honest appreciation for the human condition that I’m drawn in and stunned. This is a film that deserves several viewings and needs to be studied. I don’t just recommend this film–I demand that you watch it.
Next I’ll finish up my Korean film expedition with more Joon-ho Bong and Mother.