There is for me always something elusive about the films of Bong Joon-ho. They are well-crafted, but do not draw attention to their virtuosity. They immerse the viewer in a lively and multifarious milieu, but so much so that it is easy for the viewer to take for granted the sophisticated nature of his visual compositions. Bong makes films that improve with each viewing, which is high praise indeed but also the feature of an arduous task, because it is only with repeated viewings that the subtleties of his style, as well as the complex manner in which he develops his themes, come more fully into notice. Bong’s form of understatement rewards repetition and rewinding.
Memories of Murder (2003) is based on a real-life series of killings of women that took place in a mostly rural part of Gyeonggi province between 1986 and 1991. Known as the Hwaseong serial murders, the crimes that took the lives of ten women aged between 14 and 71 remain unsolved to this day. The first-known case of serial murder in South Korea took place against the backdrop of radical social and political transformation, as it was in 1987 that massive demonstrations forced the military regime to hold free elections, and in 1988 the Seoul Olympics announced the successful modernization of South Korea and heralded its arrival to the international stage as an industrial economy. Bong’s film is not specifically “about” these upheavals and changes, nor does it indulge in nostalgic yearnings for a simpler time. But Memories of Murder, in patiently and meticulously depicting the conflicts, habits, and fears of a society on the very edge of dramatic transformations, creates a haunting and wholly convincing figure of social change in the form of a perpetrator who is never brought to justice. What is most surprising about the film is not the lack of closure that stuns and haunts the viewer and detectives alike, but the unexpected scale of its ambitions. Memories of Murder, while our eyes are elsewhere as it were, succeeds in capturing the turning-point of modern South Korean history and binding it to the most unexpected and the most dreadful of modern human types, the serial murderer.
In her article on Bong’s films, Christina Klein notes that Memories of Murder uses a familiar narrative convention for Hollywood crime thrillers, in which the investigation of a “surface crime” makes visible a “deep crime,” a “pervasive wrongdoing that lies beneath the surface of everyday life” (Klein, 881). The effort by the local detective Park and an investigator sent from Seoul, detective Seo, to solve the murders brings to light the everyday violence and oppression inflicted on the Korean people by the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. Park and his assistant Cho, carry out brutal interrogations of suspects, planting evidence and torturing two of them to the point where both are ready to make false confessions of their guilt. Cho is also seen taking part in a crackdown of student protesters, dragging a female student by the hair out of the crowd to kick her before having her taken away. But the crude methods of the police are more than matched in their destructive impact by the military government in its neglect for the safety of its citizens. On a night on which the detectives receive information that a murder will take place, no soldiers are available to man checkpoints and stake-outs across the town, as they have been called up to crush a demonstration in a nearby city. Because the police do not receive help, the murderer gets away with another crime. Shots of power blackouts and defense drills at a junior high school also underscore the burdensome restrictions imposed by the military government on everyday life.
The “deep crime” film, in exposing the injustices that structure social life and go both unchallenged and often unnoticed, can take on mythic resonances. Perhaps the most notable example of a film in which the “realism” of the police investigation unveils and is overwhelmed by the “mythic” nature of the crime is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Screenwriter Robert Towne stated that the film illustrates the idea that crimes that are too big to punish instead become celebrated as monumental achievements. The investigation of the murder of the water commissioner by the disreputable private detective Jake Gittes comes up against a conspiracy headed by the wealthiest men of Los Angeles to drive farmers off their properties and incorporate their land into the city in order to gain access to its reservoirs. The rise of a great city is made possible by murder, extortion, and theft on a grand scale, all of which go unpunished. As with Thebes and Rome, violence and crime lay the foundation for a fearful and glorious destiny. Chinatown closes with the triumph of its antagonist, a primal father figure who not only succeeds in multiplying his already vast fortune, but gets away with rape and incest as well.
But another type of film about the foundations of society, or the establishment of a new society, focuses on the figure of what Fredric Jameson calls the vanishing mediator. This film portrays the rise of civilization through the selfless sacrifice of a noble hero who makes possible a social order in which he himself will no longer be needed. But the selflessness of the hero proves to be excessive, as he is forced to give up not only his personal happiness in bringing about a peaceful world, but is also denied public recognition for his deed. I am thinking here primarily of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which the frontiersman Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne), kills the eponymous gunslinger, enabling Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) to bring order and rule of law to a lawless town, where individuals settled differences with force. But circumstances result in Stoddard being publicly acclaimed as the hero who personally vanquished the cruel and violent outlaw who embodies the forces of disorder. Doniphon chooses not to reveal the truth about the killing, and even gives up the woman he loves so that she can marry Stoddard, and dies in obscurity, a broken and forgotten man. Although Stoddard is a courageous and intelligent character, a sort of Moses bearing the tablets of the law to an uncivilized land, nevertheless Ford portrays him as the pawn of forces beyond his control, the forces which domesticate the violent freedom of the uncivilized Old West in order to allow those people to flourish whose concerns are mundane and materialistic. Indeed, the demise of authentic liberty in a commercial society is conveyed by the name of Doniphon’s black farmhand, Pompey. Pompey was of course one of the last defenders of the Roman Republic, ultimately defeated by Julius Caesar. Stoddard’s first name, on the other hand, serves as an allusion to Caesar himself, who, when kidnapped by pirates at a young age, forced them to raise the ransom they had set on him.
Deep crime and the vanishing mediator: Bong’s film contains both, but give them an unexpected twist. While Memories of Murder presents a scathing depiction of everyday life under an authoritarian regime, the serial murders, while they take advantage of the conflicts wracking South Korea (the detectives at one point are prevented from saving the life of a witness because they are attacked by enraged students), nevertheless open the way to the future. It marks the beginning of the future not only because the suspect gets away from the police at the end, but also because serial murder is the paradigmatic crime of modern industrial society. What is most shocking about serial murder is the apparent absence of any purpose, other than the inhuman and predatory enjoyment of killing. In traditional societies, violence is typically regarded as a means to an end. Serial murder is an extreme manifestation of the social purposelessness made possible by the modern industrial economy. The serial killer is normally inconspicuous, blending in so well with his environment that people are often taken by surprise whenever one of their acquaintances is found to have committed grisly and horrifying crimes.
Without explicitly stating its ambitions, Bong’s film is a profound exploration of the transformation of South Korean society from military dictatorship to a liberal democracy and affluent consumer society. The scandal of the film, however, is the fact that it does not focus on figures that would be considered the agents and representatives of these dramatic political changes: the martyred labor activist, the radical student protester, or the penitent police officer. Rather, Memories of Murder introduces the figure of the vanishing perpetrator, who may not even appear physically in the film with the exception of a single point of view shot in which he chooses his victim, as the bearer of historical transition. And yet this innovation points to a grim and inexorable truth: we cannot be certain that we have entered a new society until we have something genuinely new to fear. No longer will the strongest object of social fear be the secret policemen dragging away citizens to torture and humiliate in government dungeons. What will cause dread in people in the new liberal, urbanized society will be the unknowability of one’s neighbor, the anxiety that his appetites might be limitless and his desires unappeasable.
The lack of closure in the film may mirror the lack of reconciliation and harmony in South Korean society, especially about its past, yet the crimes of the vanishing perpetrator haunts us in a different way than the crimes of the founders. For Bong, the unsolved crime provides a more powerful mode of commemoration than the unpunished crime of the founders. It occupies the gap between past and present that memory, always vainly, strives to overcome. It makes the protagonist yearn for the past, but without nostalgia.
Christina Klein, “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho,” American Quarterly 60.4 (December 2008), 871-898.
Fredric Jameson, “The Vanishing Mediator, or Max Weber as Storyteller,” Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: Essays 1971-1986 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).