Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pluto (명왕성, Shin Su-won, 2013)

GSEOiWzAs we’ve seen lately, there are certainly no shortage of films looking at the complicated and often harsh world of high school in Korea. Pluto (명왕성, Myungwangsung) takes a sideways look at the darker side of academic excellence when the praise and prestige of being one of the top students becomes almost like a drug and makes otherwise bright young people do things even a heroin addict in serious need of a fix might at least feel bad about afterwards with an all encompassing sense of entitlement that gives them a lifetime free pass for even the worst transgression.

June (David Lee) is a bright young boy from a regular high school who’s just transferred into an elite boarding school educating the country’s next great hopes. He may have been a top student at his old school, but here he’s merely average as the school hotshots are pretty quick to point out. Here, the top ten students are treated like princelings – a special computerised teaching room, no curfew, better rooms, better resources and they can more or less do what they like so long as they keep their grades up. Occasionally someone manages to bump one of the top ten from the list but they quickly get kicked out again. The top ten operate like some kind of swatters mafia – they all stick rigidly together, swapping hot tips for the upcoming exams that they refuse to share with the others and engaging in a series of increasingly cruel “pranks” they term rabbit hunts.

The film opens with the police finding the body of the previously number one student Yu-jin (Sung Joon) in a wood with June’s phone lying next him having been used to film the entire grisly affair. June is arrested for the murder but is released after his alibi checks out. Sick of all the struggle and unfairness, June puts his particular talents to use to try and teach the world a lesson about the sort of people this system is producing.

The picture Pluto paints of the Korean schools system is a frankly frightening one in which academic success is virtually bought and paid for or guaranteed by class credentials. Yes, the top students obviously must have ability – some of their activities may come close to cheating but interestingly nobody seems to want to try actual deception to get ahead. However, that natural ability has clearly been bolstered by their parents’ wealth. Attending an elite school and spending more than some people earn on private tutors geared towards knowing how to get into the best universities undoubtedly gives them advantages which are out of reach for others no matter how smart they may be. Perhaps that’s fair enough in a capitalist society, they didn’t ask to be born to rich parents and who would turn that sort of help down if offered it? However, though they may possess the virtues of discipline, hard work and a desire to succeed what they lack is any sort of empathy or even common human decency. Engaging in a series of manipulative hazing exercises, the elite group will stop at nothing to protect their status specialising in thuggery, blackmail, rape and even murder. The sort of people this system is advancing are not the sort of people you want running your schools and hospitals, they are morally bankrupt and only care about their own standing in the eyes of others.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this elite boarding school is housed inside a former compound of the Korean secret police, including a subterranean layer of prison-like tunnels once used as a torture chamber. Aside from the obvious school as torture analogies, much of them film seems to be about what people choose to ‘unsee’. The headmaster of the high school is aware of the ‘untoward’ behaviour of some of his pupils but refuses to do anything in case it upsets their well connected parents, damages the reputation of his school or has an adverse effect on those all important test results. The ‘Pluto’ of the title is referenced in June’s university application essay on the demotion of Pluto from the accepted list of planets. He argues that this is unfair and a fallacy as it’s illogical to measure anything by its proximity to the sun which is, after all, just another star which will eventually die like all the others. Just because it’s a little different looking, you shouldn’t necessarily categorise it as being in some way ‘inferior’ based on a set of fairly flimsy criteria. June, like Pluto, hovers in uncertain orbit on the periphery – always wanting in but perpetually locked out. Naturally gifted but from an ‘ordinary’ background where his single mother sells insurance for OK money, June can’t hope to compete with these elite kids even if his capabilities may be greater. A lot of decisions have already been made as to what people choose to see, have chosen to regard as an ideal, even if the reality is painfully obvious.

Though oddly funny in places for such a hard hitting film, Pluto is a difficult watch at times and paints a depressing picture of the high pressured nature of the Korean educational system and of human nature in general. The elite group are universally awful people who run the gamut from arrogant, entitled prigs to snivelling cowards which makes it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy and you start to long for bad things to happen to them which somewhat undermines the film’s premise. Perhaps the problem is just that they were awful people who were enabled by a system rather than people who started out good and were corrupted by it. Stylishly shot and supported by well grounded performances from its young cast, Pluto is a welcome addition to this perhaps overcrowded genre which brings more than a few new thought provoking ideas to the table.


 

Review of first Pluto published by UK Anime Network.