Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn poster“So much of the past lingers in my heart” laments the melancholy song which closes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, (不散, sǎn) “I’ll remember with longing forever”. What is cinema if not an expression of irresolvable nostalgia, a kind of visual hiraeth for something that probably never quite existed but is so painfully missed. Everything in here stayed the same, but everything outside changed and now the present seems to be literally raining in leaving the last few fugitives from reality lost in halls of memory like lonely ghosts trapped on the wrong side of the screen.

On the wrong side of the screen is where we find ourselves. We begin in darkness with the opening narration from King Hu’s 1967 wuxia masterpiece Dragon Inn before the curtain in front of us begins to flicker and reveal an entire theatre filled with people. We pull back, and eventually the people are gone leaving just a few desperate souls returning to watch this now classic picture on what could be its very last evening as this theatre – now so unsuitable for the modern cinema environment, will be closing “temporarily” as soon as the reels stop turning.

Truth be told, no one much is even very interested in the movie. Some have merely come in to shelter from the rain, but unfortunately for them not even here is safe thanks to a leaky roof. The dazzling labyrinths of the backstage environment seem to have been co-opted by the local cruising community, men brushing past each other looking for another like them but needing to be sure their desires will be returned. Meanwhile they gaze at each other in the dim half light of the cinema screen, aching with unspeakable longing.

Longing is also something on the mind of an older gentlemen, seemingly the only one actually watching the film, who turns out to be one of its actors shedding a silent, solitary tear for time passed. Running into a friend much like himself outside he laments that “No one comes to the movies anymore”. Everyone has forgotten them, turning them into ghosts of cinema, immortal but unremembered. They have, in a sense, been attending their own funeral, entombed inside a moribund building lit only by spectres of the past.

All this is, however, secondary to the backstage drama of the lonely box office cashier (Chen Shiang-chyi) and her inexpressible crush on the projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng) who never seems to be around when she needs him. Sadly cutting into a celebratory bun, she saves half of it for him – the least ambiguous expression of love which seems to be possible within this space. Slowly climbing the stairs with a lame leg, she gazes fondly at the screen while the heroine fearlessly dispatches a series of bad guys, but the light cast on her face seems only to emphasise her lack of courage before she sadly retreats back to the ticket booth where no customers require her services.

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, a young woman (Yang Kuei-mei) munches peanuts and throws her legs over the backs of the seats in front much to the chagrin of the confused tourist whose confusion seems only to deepen when the crushing noise stops and the woman disappears (unbeknownst to him she’s on a mission to retrieve a lost shoe, or perhaps has evaporated into thin air). The first words spoken, which occur at the 45 minute mark, are to state that this theatre is haunted. Departed spirits all, the lonely denizens are indeed haunting the room and themselves as they attempt to escape the relentless march of the modern world through self-internment in a damp and crumbling mausoleum of cinema.

A lament for a dying world stripped bare by the passage of time, Tsai’s exploration of urban loneliness is a nostalgic elegy for a simpler age, filled with unresolvable longing and the ironic misconnection of an individualised communal activity. Stillness and solitude define all for these lonely, disconnected souls chasing oblivion. The past can never return, nor can the missed opportunities and brief moments spent bathed in celluloid splendour, but then perhaps you wouldn’t want it to anyway because then you couldn’t miss it. “I’ll remember with longing forever” – romanticism at its finest, but it’s a trap that’s difficult to resist.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Liu Lian by Yao Lee – the poignant song playing over the end credits.

Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2003)

karaoke terror poster.jpgEver since its invention karaoke has provided the means for many a weary soul to ease their burdens, but there may be a case for wondering if escapism is a valid goal in a society which seems to be content in stagnation. The awkwardly titled Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Showa Kayo Daizenshu), adapted from the book Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Audition’s Ryu Murakami, pits two very different groups of karaoke enthusiasts against each other – aimless adolescent males, and jaded middle-aged women. Despite the differences in their ages and experiences, both enjoy singing the wistful bubblegum pop of an earlier generation as if drunk on national nostalgia and longing for the lost innocence of Japan’s hopeful post-war endeavour to rebuild itself better than it had been before.

We open with the slackers and a voice over from the presumed “hero” of the film, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda), who informs us that he can’t really remember how he met most of the guys he hangs out with but that he always knew the one of them, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), was a bit cracked in the head. In a motif that will be repeated, Sugioka catches sight of a middle-aged woman just on the way back from a shopping trip and decides he must have her but his attempts to pick her up fail spectacularly at which point he whips out his knife and slashes her throat.

Meanwhile, across town, a middle-aged woman, Hemmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), offers to let a co-worker share her umbrella but the co-worker misinterprets this small gesture of courtesy as romantic interest and crudely asks her “how about a fuck?” to which Hemmi is quite rightly outraged. Rather than apologise, the co-worker shrugs and says his “direct” approach works six times out of eight and some women even appreciate it. Once she manages to get away from her odious aggressor, Hemmi ends up stumbling over the body of the woman murdered by Sugioka and realises she knows her. The murdered woman was one of six all named Midori who were brought together for a newspaper article about the lives of middle-aged divorced women and have stayed “friends”. Outraged about this assault not just on their friend and their sex but directly against “women of a certain age” who continue to be the butt of a societal joke, the Midoris decide they want revenge and hatch a plan off Sugioka, but once they have, the slackers hit back by offing a Midori and so it continues with ever-increasing levels of violence.

Which ever way you slice it, you can’t deny the Midoris have a point and Hemmi’s continuing outrage is fully justified. When the boys rock up at a mysterious general goods store out in the country looking for a gun, the proprietor (Yoshio Harada) is only too happy to give it to them when they explain they need it for revenge and that their targets are middle-aged women. The proprietor has a lot to say about ladies of a certain age. In fact he hates them and thinks that bossy, embittered, unproductive women “too old” to fulfil their only reason for existence will be the only ones to survive a nuclear apocalypse that even the cockroaches cannot overcome. The boys appear timid and inexperienced but ironically enough can’t take their eyes off the middle-aged woman from across the way and her sexy dance routines. They feel entitled to female deference and cannot accept a woman’s right to decline. The Midoris are sick of being “humiliated”. They’ve fallen from Japan’s conformist path for female success in getting divorced or attempting to pursue careers. They’ve lost their children and endured constant ridicule as “sad” or “desperate”, made to feel as if their presence in the workplace past a certain age was “inappropriate” and the prices they have paid for their meagre successes were not worth the reward. They strike back not just at these psychotic boys but at a society which has persistently enacted other kinds of violence upon them.

Meanwhile, the boys remain boys, refusing adulthood and responsibility by wasting their time on idle pursuits. Truth be told, karaoke performances involving dance routines and elaborate costumes is not a particularly “cool” hobby by the standards of the time but it appears that none of these men have much else in their lives to invest themselves in. With the economy stagnating and the salaryman dream all but dead, you can’t blame them for their apathy or for the rejection of the values of their parents’ generation, but you can blame them for their persistent refusal to grow up and tendency to allow their insecurities to bubble over into violence.

As it turns out, adolescent males and middle-aged women have more in common than might be thought in their peripheral existences, exiled from the mainstream success which belongs exclusively to middle-aged and older men who’ve been careful to (superficially at least) adhere to all the rules of a conformist society. Neither group of friends is especially friendly, only latterly realising that “real” connections are forged through direct communication. Their mutual apathy is pierced only by violence which, ironically, allows their souls to sing and finally shows them just what all those cheerful songs were really about. Darkly comic and often surreal, Karaoke Terror is a sideways look at two diametrically opposed groups finding unexpected common ground in the catharsis of vengeance only for their internecine warfare to graduate into world ending pettiness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The greatest hits of the Showa era:

Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers

Hoshi no Nagare ni – Akiko Kikuchi

Chanchiki Okesa – Haruo Minami

Shiroi Cho no Samba – Kayoko Moriyama

Linda Linda – The Blue Hearts

Sweet Memories – Seiko Matsuda

Kaze Tachinu – Seiko Matsuda

Minato ga Mieru Oka – Aiko Hirano

Sabita Knife – Yujiro Ishihara

Hone Made Aishite – Jo Takuya

Kimi to Itsumademo – Yuzo Kayama

Mata Au Hi Made – Kiyohiko Ozaki

Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Lou Ye, 2003)

Purple Butterfly posterChinese films about the resistance movement towards the Japanese occupation tend to veer towards the hagiographic. The business of resistance may be complex, may require unfortunate moral compromises, and may in fact prove ruinous but it is always righteous. Lou Ye’s Purple Butterfly (紫蝴蝶, Zǐ Húdié) wants to tell a different, sadder story. Set between 1928 and 1937, Purple Butterfly pits love and oppression against each other and asks whether feeling is a worthy causality of war or if compassion is merely a weakness which must be eradicated in the quest for political freedom.

In Manchuria in 1928, Ding Hui (Zhang Ziyi) is having an affair with a Japanese man raised in China who is also a childhood friend. Itami (Toru Nakamura) is being called back to Japan and has asked Ding Hui to go with him. As if trapped within a melancholy film noir, she goes to the station but does not board the train. When she comes home, she witnesses her brother, the editor of an underground resistance newspaper, being assassinated by a Japanese nationalist. Ding Hui joins the cause.

Flashforward to 1931 and Ding Hui makes her second trip to the station as part of an operation to pass important papers to an operative. However, the operation goes as wrong as it could possibly go. Szeto (Liu Ye) – an ordinary passenger, picks up the assassin’s jacket by mistake and is passed the briefcase. When he tries to give it back, the operative panics and starts shooting, assuming they have been betrayed. Many innocent people are killed, including Szeto’s fiancée Yiling (Li Bingbing) who had made the perilous journey to the station to meet him despite the ongoing unrest gripping the city.

Train stations become a point of transition, of loss and compromise in more ways than one and especially for Ding Hui who feels herself fracturing, anxious to the point of breakdown and wondering what exactly it is they’re fighting for. As coincidence would have it, also on the train is Itami – returned from Japan and now an intelligence officer tasked with rooting out the “Purple Butterfly” resistance cell of which Ding Hui is a prominent member. It is decided that Ding Hui must rekindle her romance with Itami in order to have an eye in the intelligence department and engineer access to assassinating the top officer, Yamamoto (Kin Ei).

Lou deliberately fragments his narrative, allowing the shockwaves from the central train station sequence to radiate outward as the three protagonists dance around each other willingly or otherwise. Dance is, indeed, the primary metaphor as he digresses from the central narrative to give us Szeto’s backstory in his dreamy, innocent romance with Yiling which is destined to end in tragedy. The pair dance to Shanghai jazz, giddy, as if the world itself has receded from them and they exist only within this present and this space. Later Szeto puts the same record on again as he contemplates suicide, longing to be back inside that moment. As we had two train stations we also have two dances but our second is danced to a Japanese tune as Ding Hui and Itami attend a party, each sorrowful, each dreading what must come next but also perhaps mildly hopeful that it will finally be over and perhaps they can both catch that train out of Shanghai after all.

War defeats them all. Szeto’s life is ruined, as are the lives of many, by resistance panic at a busy train station. His pain and his rage and the impotence of his times threaten to push him over the edge, consumed by hatred for both sides who have each taken from him the only things which ever mattered. Ding Hui sacrificed her love for patriotism, Itami sacrificed patriotism for love, they win and lose in equal measure cementing only the inevitable sense of impossibility which continues to define Shanghai in the 1930s. Lou paints their destinies like film noir, fatalistic and romantic yet human and painful. Feeling is powerless in the face of historical circumstance, or so Lou seems to say as he closes out with a selection of stock footage depicting the fall of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre. What are we fighting for? Ding Hui asks, but it’s a question with no answer when all around is chaos.


Purple Butterfly is available to stream on Mubi UK until 3rd September 2018.

 Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Wild Berries (蛇イチゴ, Miwa Nishikawa, 2003)

wild berries posterThe family drama was once the representative genre of Japanese cinema. In the turbulent post-war world, the one unchanging, unbreakable touchstone was the bonds between parents and their children even if it must also be realised that those bonds will necessarily change over time. Tiny cracks might have been visible even in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in the growing disconnection between the old folks in the country and their city kids, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s when Japan’s economic recovery had fully taken hold that the family itself began to come under fire. Yoshimitu Morita’s The Family Game kickstarted a trend of family implosion movies which implied that familial bonds were more social affectation than genuine connection, but post-bubble the tables turned again. These days, Hirokazu Koreeda has picked up the family drama mantle, depicting broadly positive pictures of normal family life. It is then all the stranger that his protege, Miwa Nishikawa, should be the one to ask again if family really is all it’s cracked up to be.

An ordinary breakfast in the Akechi household. Grandpa (Matsunosuke Shofukutei ) is dipping his toast in the coffee again while salaryman dad Yoshiro (Sei Hiraizumi) reads his paper. Schoolteacher Tomoko (Miho Tsumiki) barely has time to look at her breakfast before her mother, Akiko (Naoko Otani), reminds her that today is “Wednesday” – not only does she need her PE kit, but it’s also the day that her fiancé, Kamata (Toru Tezuka), is coming round to tea to meet the folks. The atmosphere is pleasant, genial, but why has Yoshiro had his mobile phone cut off and is the bald spot Akiko has just discovered on the top of her head really anything to worry about?

The Akechis are the archetype of a modern middle-class family, living a comfortable life in a nice home while dad goes out to work and mum does everything else. It is not, however, quite as it seems. Yoshiro’s phone has been cut off because he hasn’t paid the bill. He hasn’t paid the bill because he’s lost his job. He hasn’t told his wife he’s lost his job because he’s too ashamed, so he’s taken out vast loans from gangsters rather than trying to find a more honest solution. Mum Akiko plays the dutiful housewife, cooking, cleaning, putting up with Yoshiro’s imperious behaviour and looking after grandpa who has advanced dementia and thinks he’s still at war. In reality she’s bored and resentful, tired of the burden of looking after her husband’s ungrateful father and longing to have some time for herself. The only uncorrupted member of the family is schoolteacher Tomoko who finds herself giving a strange lesson on the evils of lying to her class of small children. Tomoko is perhaps too uncorrupted, prim as a schoolmarm but dull with it.

When grandpa meets an unfortunate end, the longstanding family secret is revealed – Tomoko is not an only child, she had an older brother, Shuji (Hiroyuki Miyasako), who had been expelled from the family for his immoral ways – i.e, lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, Shuji’s return was an accident – his main job is stealing the condolence money from funerals and he just happened to be at the one next door. Shuji’s conman credentials might be just what the family needs, but could they and should they let him save them and is “saving” the family that rejected him really a part of Shuji’s grand plan?

Japan’s rapid economic recovery is usually blamed for the collapse of the family, sending sons away from the villages and prizing the commercial over the spiritual. Tomoko’s fiance, Kamata, has a slightly different take on the problem. After his first meal with the Akechis he’s touched by the warm and friendly family atmosphere, comparing them favourably with his own upperclass family which he feels to be cold and austere. The class difference and Kamata’s obvious discomfort surrounding it is one problem as is his problematic characterisation of Tomoko’s family as earnest and hardworking as, perhaps, he thinks people without inherited wealth ought to be is another, but the real irony is reserved for Kamata’s eventual reaction to discovering the truth. Yoshiro didn’t take to Kamata because he thought him “unconventional” with his unkempt hair and pretentious tastes, but Kamata proves himself the most conventional of all in his cruel rejection of his fiancée over what he sees as a betrayal by her family.

Wild berries, once they take root, quickly take over, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Secrets, and the need to keep them, have eaten away at the foundations of the Akechi family but which is the best way to repair them – starting all over again and working hard to put things right, as Tomoko would have it, or opting for Shuji’s dishonest quick fix? The youngsters battle it out amongst themselves for the soul of the family unit while mum and dad are just too world weary to even care anymore. Faith in the family may be running at an all time low, but Nishikawa at least manages to mine the situation for all of its bleak irony, laughing along knowingly with each dark revelation or small tragedy.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

memories_of_murderThe Korea of the mid-1980s was a society in flux though you might not know it looking at the sleepy small town about to be rocked by the country’s very first publicised spate of serial killings. Between 1986 and 1991, at least ten women ranging in age from schoolgirls to grandmothers were murdered while the killer seemingly got away with his crimes, either dying, fleeing or perhaps getting arrested on other charges explaining the abrupt end to his crime spree. Bong Joon-ho’s fictionalised take on the case, Memories of Murder (살인의 추억, Salinui Chueok), is not so much interested in the killer’s identity, but wants to ask a few hard questions about why the crimes took place and why they were never solved.

In October of 1986, Inspector Park (Song Kang-ho) rides a junk cart out to a paddy field where a farmer has found the decomposing body of a woman blocking a drainage ditch at the edge of his land. Park quickly confirms that it is, in fact, the body of a murdered woman and tries to look unphased while a strange little boy distracted from his bug catching neatly echoes everything he says, playing policeman while the other children run roughshod over the crime scene trailing their butterfly nets behind them.

Needless to say Park and his bruiser partner, Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are ill equipped to handle a case of this magnitude, especially when it becomes clear that the murder is not an isolated episode. They are later joined by a more experienced officer from Seoul, Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is not used to country ways and finds it hard to adjust to their distinctly old fashioned and unscientific approach to law enforcement. Park, resentful at being saddled with a babysitter from the city and made to feel as if his small town skills aren’t good enough is determined to prove that he knows his stuff even as he begins to realise that perhaps policing really isn’t for him.

Park is the kind of policeman every small town has. Placing great faith in his detective’s instinct, Park is sure that he “just knows” who is naughty and who is nice. He asks suspects to look directly into his eyes so that he can assess whether they’re telling him the truth but it’s more of a party trick than anything else, looking into Park’s earnest gaze most suspects will crack. Early on Park’s boss gives him a test – two boys have been brought in and are patiently filling out forms. One caught the other in the middle of raping his sister, stopped him, and dragged him to the police station. Which one is the brother and which the rapist? Park feels sure he knows, and one could certainly make an educated guess based on the number and positioning of bruises on the suspects’ faces, but attempting to identify criminality based solely on perceived shiftiness or not liking the look of someone is crossing the line from professional instinct to ignorant prejudice.

The truth is that Park knows he’s no great shakes as a law enforcer. He was never meant to be – small town cops don’t generally do a lot of crime solving, they maintain order through the visible presence of authority. Thus he takes against city boy Seo because he instantly feels threatened by his urban sophistication and big city ways. Seo is perhaps not the best cop Seoul had to offer, but he is trained investigative techniques entirely alien to Park and Cho. The extent to which they’re out of their depth is obvious when they seem to know they’re supposed to secure the crime scene, but can’t, allowing valuable evidence to be carelessly destroyed.

Park’s investigative techniques involve making scrapbooks of shady local guys and browbeating suspects, eventually trying to railroad a young man with learning difficulties into confessing to the crime through a process of physical violence and mental attrition. Put out by Seo’s more concrete leads, Park’s only other contribution is to suggest they start looking for guys with no pubic hair which sees him waste more time hanging out in public baths and doing a lot of inappropriate staring. Wasting time is Park’s biggest crime though, amusingly enough, he and Seo end up in exactly the same place when Park consults a Shaman and Seo pursues a more rational line of enquiry lending credence to the idea that neither of them is really much better than the other.

What gets lost is that a woman, and then several more women, are dead and there is a man out there preying on wives, sisters, and mothers yet nothing much is being to protect them save reminding them to take care of themselves. Park wants the kudos of catching a killer but he barely thinks about the consequences of arresting the wrong man, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that the real killer would still be out there posing a threat to every woman in the town. Despite the fact that this is a small place where the victims are known to most people, there is little in the way of public grief or even sadness. The only sign of public feeling is in the small protest held outside the police station when a member of a local church is arrested.

The protest may be the key. In this strained era, Korea was reaching the end of its period under the control of a military dictatorship with the Olympics still a few years away and democracy the bright dream of brave radicals. Park and co. are the “friendly” face of the ruling regime, one of their secondary roles is doing the government’s dirty work. Hence when they really need extra manpower to chase a suspect they are denied it because everyone in the local area has been sent to suppress a protest in a nearby town. This is a scant few years after the Gwanju massacre, “suppression” means more than just standing around with riot shields designed to intimidate. Yes, there’s a crazed killer on the loose, but he is only a symptom and manifestation of a social order which has long since abandoned the idea of protecting its citizens in order to more effectively oppress them.

A woman can walk down a street in broad daylight and be terrified by a man trying to ask for directions because she has been taught to be afraid and knows the threat is real. A television news report on the trial of a policeman accused of violence and sexual assault reminds us why she can’t trust Park. Her government does not care about her. It could make more of an effort to solve these crimes, but it won’t, because the appearance of order is always preferential to its reality. The memories of murder run deep, they speak of all the stifled impulses of a life under a dictatorial regime. No one does anything because there is nothing to be done.

The identity of the killer is, in this sense, irrelevant – it is the society which is ultimately responsible for creating him and then for failing to put an end to his crimes. Park and Seo, eventually working together through a kind of cross pollination, think they’ve found their man but can’t prove it because Korea doesn’t have DNA testing facilities and they need to wait for results from an American lab. The evidence is circumstantial yet convincing, and one can’t be sure. The face of evil is “plain” and “ordinary”, much like your own. If you want to find the answer, start looking closer to home.


Original trailer (English subtitles)