Despite my disappointment in Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s latest movie Mother, I was so impressed with The Host, the one that preceded it, that I was determined to look further into his work, especially since I found him such an intriguing personality when he spoke at The Korea Society about a month ago on a publicity tour for Mother.
Available from Netflix, the 2003 Memories of Murder, his second film, has a plot very similar to Mother. Not only is it about a psychopathic murderer, it involves a young retarded man as a suspect. As I mentioned in my review of Mother, I found Bong’s decision to ultimately reveal that the retarded man was guilty so disappointing from a moral and political standpoint that the technical virtuosity that other critics treasured above all else left me cold. In Memories of Murder we never know who the killer is but we do learn that the retarded youth is not. Indeed, the entire movie is one long series of misadventures by the local cops who are bent on extracting confessions from one suspect after another using beatings and fabricated evidence when it suits them.
In his presentation to The Korea Society, Bong explained that he was drawn to genres but always sought a way to subvert them and defy audience expectations. The genre of The Host was clearly 1950s Japanese monster movies like Godzilla, but Bong transcended the genre by making the pursuers a transcendentally dysfunctional but endearing Korean family rather than the flinty-eyed military.
In Memories of Murder the genre should be familiar if you’ve seen flicks like Dirty Harry or Silence of the Lambs. But instead of the intrepid and farsighted hero detective, you get a trio of cops who can’t seem to do anything right. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is both flabby in body and mind. When he insists to his captain that he can tell if a man is guilty just by looking in his eyes, the captain challenges him to tell which man is the rapist and which is the cop sitting a few feet away from them in the station house, answering wrong. His partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) is a lean and violent thug who will begin beating a suspect without a moment’s hesitation. Despite the creepiness of these two characters, Bong accomplishes the impossible by making them sympathetic. He does so by portraying them essentially as losers, not quite lovable but comically menacing like the Nazi officer played by Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.
Before long Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a Seoul detective, joins these two and becomes rapidly dismayed by their brutality and lack of proper forensic training. The central drama of this movie is about the cultural and moral clash between the local cops and Seo, evoking Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night.
Neither the hard cop tactics of Park or Cho, nor the sophisticated detective work of Seo gets results. On rainy nights, after a sentimental tune is played as a request on the local radio, a woman in a red dress is killed. For each new victim, the pressure mounts on the cops to find the killer. Despite the fact that the movie resists tying things up neatly in a red ribbon at the conclusion, you are totally satisfied by it if for no other reason it has the chaotic feel of real life.