[Movie Review] Memories of Murder captures the lingering brutality of the Hwaseong killings
Memories of Murder is Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 retelling of the real-life Hwaseong serial murders which occurred from 1986-91 in the rural city of Hwaseong, in Gyeonggi Province. The case is known as the first instance of serial murders with a clear modus operandi in South Korea, and remains unsolved to this day, often drawing comparisons to the Zodiac Killer. The still-open case has been a common subject for film and television in the last decade, including Signal and Tunnel, but Bong was the first to tackle it in what has become a modern classic. The film begins in 1987, a year after the murders have started, with the city of Hwaseong under a cloud of unease, and the detectives working on the case increasingly frustrated.
Song Kang-ho (Parasite) plays protagonist and lead detective Doo-man, investigating the case with his partner Young-gu and newly arrived inspector Tae-yoon, played by Kim Sang-kyung (The Vanished, The Crowned Clown). Tae-yoon volunteered to come from Seoul to work on the Hwaseong murders, and Doo-man is suspicious of his book learning and intellectual ways, telling him to go work for the FBI—here in Korea they investigate by pounding the pavement with their feet.
Tae-yoon, on the other hand, quietly and contemptuously watches as Doo-man and Young-gu plant evidence, torture suspects into confessing, and freely commit violence against the townspeople when they think they might be guilty of something, or even when they’re just in a bad mood. Tae-yoon doesn’t intervene in these unjust arrests until the last possible second, but he’s so inscrutable that it’s hard to tell if he doesn’t care about the suspects’ suffering, or if he simply waits until he has enough evidence to let them go. Either way, the film shows us a police force that is brutally and indiscriminately violent, highly misogynistic, and recklessly incompetent. Even the so-called “brainy” cop Tae-yoon is only smart in comparison to the other two, and takes far too long to understand a clue that was staring them all in the face early on—with tragic consequences.
Unsurprisingly, Bong’s filmmaking is stylish and highly effective. Overlaying the work is a brilliantly realized atmosphere of suffocating gloom and dread that grows as more women are found raped and murdered, and every clue leads the detectives to a dead end. Ever-present in the background is Chun Doo-hwan’s brutal regime which infamously carried out the Gwangju Massacre in 1988. Bong doesn’t directly address the authoritarian environment, but early on, we see a scene of police violently suppressing protestors; later, the station chief is denied extra officers to help on a night the team knows a murder will most likely take place, because they’re out crushing a protest somewhere else. The specter of the citizens soon to be cruelly murdered by these same institutions of power is very present in the subtext of the film, and the mind of the viewer. We see how completely the case is bungled by the police, their violent interrogations losing them the people’s trust, and their hapless, misdirected and often shockingly ignorant investigation methods leading them down all sorts of wrong paths—all within the context of a regime in which power goes unchecked and the strong freely tread on the weak.
Doo-man and Tae-yoon are the two main characters in the movie, though I certainly wouldn’t call them heroes. They’re initially set up as total opposites, with Doo-man leading with feet, fists and the “instinct” he swears can tell him if a suspect is lying (an instinct that is consistently proved to be worth nothing); he repeatedly tells suspects to look him straight in the eyes, as if that will give him an indication of their guilt. Tae-yoon starts out methodically reading all the case files, carefully questioning witnesses and townspeople and paying attention to every tiny clue, stepping in at the last moment when an innocent man has been wrongfully accused. And yet these two slowly begin to resemble each other as they spend more time on the case. The murders, the autopsies, the public backlash against them for their continued failure, their own frustration with the lack of evidence or leads, all slowly, visibly affect them as they grow increasingly haggard and crazed in pursuit of the culprit. By the end it’s Doo-man trying to hold Tae-yoon back from committing an act we wouldn’t have thought him capable of at the beginning of the film.
The journey into darkness that they both take is the best thing about the movie, and yet it also speaks to the one aspect of the film that I have a major issue with. Bong’s protagonists are by no means noble, despite spending their days and nights trying to catch the serial killer terrorizing Hwaseong; they are terrible people facing inhuman violence and trying to figure out a way to stop it. Bong captures this in multiple ways, but one striking image is a shot of a victim on the medical examiner’s table that cuts directly to raw meat being thrown on a grill for the team’s dinner. We see over and over again the way these women were tied up, raped, and killed, and although nothing explicit is shown, the humiliation and objectification of these women is present throughout the film, and it is merciless and exhausting to watch.
Apart from the murder victims, the only female characters are a junior member of the police force that helps them with the case, and Doo-man’s wife (Jeon Mi-sun), who exists solely to support him, and ultimately to serve the climax as one of two women walking at night, each of whom has an emotional tie to one of the two main characters, one of whom the killer is going to choose for his ugly deeds. That assault is particularly disturbing, because unlike previous recountings that showed only quick cuts to the body parts being described, this time you see the whole woman as he captures and prepares to brutalize her. A whole woman, perhaps because this time, one of our male protagonists knows her—and in fact the discovery of her body the next day leads to an emotional crisis for him.
Bong’s intent to show how absolutely horrific these crimes were, how difficult a case it was for the imperfect but dogged detectives who themselves worked within a corrupt system, is clear. There is ample evidence to support the argument, in fact, that he was trying to show the way that toxic masculinity pervades society and how especially terrible things were for women in the late eighties, under an authoritarian regime and in a rural area where the police were violent, untrustworthy and almost totally without oversight. And yet the fact that women are constantly abused onscreen, treated as objects to be used not only by the unquestioned, mysterious villain, but by every single man who crosses the viewer’s path, feels to me as though it’s both portraying rape culture and participating in it simultaneously. As a woman, it’s arduous to watch—I had to take breaks while I was watching this, which I almost never do with movies, because I hate to break the flow of the experience intended by the filmmaker.
I initially chose this as a celebration of Bong Joon-ho’s historic Palme d’Or win at Cannes this year, which is amazing, and I cannot wait to see Parasite. When I started watching it, however, I realized that it includes among its cast the wonderful character actress Jeon Mi-sun, who died tragically only a few days ago. I wish I had picked something that celebrated her as an actress, instead of relegating her to the supportive and saintly wife who is far too good for the husband she treats with such devotion, and barely appears onscreen. She, and the other female characters in this movie, deserved to have more of their experience shown to the viewer. Even when the female police officer is made to dress up as bait for the killer, we see her from the perspective of her male colleagues who are perving on her, instead of inhabiting her terrifying experience of waiting to be pounced upon in the dark, rainy woods. The film gives very little attention to what it must have been like for an ordinary woman living in Hwaseong during this time.
More importantly, however, the real women killed by a monster who has yet to be brought to justice deserved better than this. A story like this, inspired by real events, about victims whose loved ones still grieve for them, should have allowed those women to be more than instruments of these two men’s headlong free-fall into despair and hopelessness—even if these were brilliant character studies, and part of the intention was to show how badly the system failed the victims. Perhaps I was more surprised because I am in effect going backwards in Bong’s career to see this for the first time; the last film I saw of his was Okja, which has a huge heart and a viewpoint so empathetic it can be painful.
Memories of Murder is a classic for a reason, and better critics than I have enumerated the incredible visual storytelling and pitch-perfect character work in this film. The film begins and ends with Doo-man visiting the same murder scene many years apart, and perfectly encapsulates the way something like this will never leave him, no matter how he tries to forget it. It’s chilling and masterful, beautifully shot and scored, and Song Kang-ho inhabits the character as brilliantly as he always does. But I can’t help wondering if his perspective was really the one we needed to bookend this story.
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