Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Lee Chang-dong, 1999)

Peppermint Candy 4K posterA wise man once said that the tragedy of life is that you have to live it forwards but it can only be understood in reverse. Lee Chang-dong’s second feature, the poignantly titled Peppermint Candy (박하사탕, Bakha Satang), lays bare the wounded innocence of 20th century Korea through the story of one man betrayed by the world in which he lived, eventually destroying himself in a protracted act of self-harm intended as a perverse attempt either at atonement or grudging conformity with a society he could not resist.

Beginning and ending with a picnic, Lee opens in 1999 as a hopelessly drunk Yong-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) crashes a reunion party he wasn’t technically invited to held to mark 20 years of friendship among former factory workers now approaching middle age. Dressed in a suit which looks somehow wrong on him, Yong-ho hogs the karaoke mic to sing a maudlin song about failed love, dances wildly, and sobs with the crushing hopelessness of a man entirely alone in the world. While his old friends try to reclaim the cheerful atmosphere, he climbs up to a nearby railway bridge where he waits for a train with outstretched arms, screaming “I’m going back” as he prepares to greet it.

Yong-ho does indeed “go back” as the train bears us ceaselessly back into the past, showing us the moments of Yong-ho’s life which struck him like a hammer to the soul and turned him into the defeated figure on the railway bridge, howling into the wind. At 40, Yong-ho is a hollowed out shell of a man, divorced and living in a greenhouse after falling foul of the volatile late ‘90s stock market, subsequently cheated out of all his money and the possibility of a new start by a man he thought was his friend. Given what we later learn about the middle-aged Yong-ho, it’s difficult to believe he had any kind of friends at all, and even if we’re conditioned to pity him as a man already dead he does nothing to earn our sympathy, cheating a poor roadside coffee seller out of a few pennies and then quietly smirking to himself in the safety of his car.

Yet, he begins to soften when a kindly man shows up and tells him that his first love, Sun-im (Moon So-ri) – now apparently this good man’s wife, is close to death and wants to see him one last time never having given up on the man he once was. Given the suit which doesn’t suit him by Sun-Im’s husband so that she won’t realise Yong-ho has made a mess of his life and be upset, Yong-ho stops to pick up a small jar filled with the titular “peppermint candy”, suddenly revealing that perhaps he never quite gave up on that man either and that may be his tragedy.

Before he was an arch capitalist making a few shady bucks in the pre-financial crisis economic boomtown of the newly democratised Korea, Yong-ho was a policeman working for the authoritarian government brutally torturing teenage democracy activists during the dying days of the regime. As a young rookie we see him squeamishly try to resist, only to be pressured into violence and then snap. The suspect fouls Yong-ho’s hand with the kind of smell that never really washes off, but it’s just one more stop on Yong-ho’s journey to spiritual ruination. Finally we reach his breaking point, in Gwangju in 1980, where his soul is forever soiled.

The Gwangju Massacre, in the story of Yong-ho’s life which is also the story of Korea, is the great festering wound which can never be healed. He carries it with him in an intermittent limp that resurfaces at times of emotional difficulty, and convinces himself that he is unworthy of everything good or innocent in the world. He breaks with Sun-im, cruelly betraying her faith in him with a crude gesture that wounds them both equally, mutually understood as a perverse act of kindness. Becoming what he thinks he’s supposed to be, what this society has made him, he wilfully destroys himself in a decades-long act of self harm that leads only back to the train which haunts him throughout all of his encounters, so painfully central to the arc of his life. Literally railroaded by an inexorable fate, Yong-ho lacks the will to resist believing he is no better than the hand he has been dealt but consumed by self-loathing and infinite regret. There is no way back, only forward, but for Yong-ho, and perhaps for Korea, Lee sees only one way out and the soft of heart will not survive it.


Peppermint Candy was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Idol (우상, Lee Su-jin, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Idol poster 1“Getting others to trust something is more important, not what they choose to believe” advises a cynical politician a little way into Lee Su-jin’s Idol (우상, Woosang). Image is indeed everything. Who are you more likely to believe – the slick, seemingly upstanding politician who’s done everything “right”, or an ageing, inarticulate aircon repairman with bleach blond hair? Two fathers go to bat for their sons, if in very different ways, but only one can emerge “victorious” in their strangely symmetrical endeavours.

Lee opens with a voice-over taken from a speech later in the film belonging to bereaved father Yoo (Sol Kyung-gu) in which he confesses that as his son Bu-nam (Lee Woo-hyun), who had severe learning difficulties, grew older, he found himself having to masturbate him to prevent him harming himself trying to calm his sexual urges. Yoo’s words play over his opposite number’s return home from a research trip to Japan. Koo (Han Suk-kyu) is a politician and former herbalist with a special interest in nuclear power. Ambitious, he spends much of his time travelling for business while his wife (Kang Mal-geum) cares for their wayward adolescent son, Johan (Jo Byung-gyu). A panicked text message warning that Johan has got himself into trouble again gets ignored, but when he arrives home Koo knows he has to act. Johan has knocked someone over and rather than take them to hospital, he’s brought the body back home.

A series of quick calculations tells him that the “best” option is for Johan to turn himself in, despite his wife’s insistence that they simply get rid of the body. He drives the corpse back to the scene and dumps it, gets rid of the original car, and then drives his son to the police station before expressing contrition in front of the cameras. That would have been that if it weren’t for Yoo’s dogged determination to find out what happened to his boy, and the fact that Bu-nam’s “wife” Ryeon-hwa (Chun Woo-hee), an undocumented former sex worker from China, managed to escape meaning there are loose ends Koo knows he needs to tie up.

“This rotting smell” Ryeon-hwa exclaims on putting a number of things together. There is something undoubtedly corrupt in Koo’s superficially smooth world of neatly pressed suits and sharp haircuts. Stagnant water swells around him, along with the murky swirl blood, as he contemplates the best way out of his present predicament. Everything here is stained, marked, or scarred as if hinting at the darkness beneath gradually seeping through.

Yoo, meanwhile, perhaps knows he lives in a “dirty” world and though he never claims to be completely clean himself, is fully aware of the implications of his actions. A widowed father, he tried to do the best for his disabled son. He offered him relief in ways others would find perverse in a strange gesture of fatherly love, finally deciding to get him a wife in the hope of putting an end to such degradation for them both only to regret his decision when he realises Bu-nam may not have died if he’d just stayed home. Koo, meanwhile, tries less to protect his son than himself, weighing up that the boy will most likely get a slap on the wrist and he’ll come out of it looking better because he behaved “honestly” and in line with the law. To get elected he will stop at nothing to preserve the image of properness, even if it means he must get his hands “dirty”.

In that essential ruthlessness, he may have something in common with the jaded Ryeon-hwa whose sister warns Yoo not to trust her because “her nature is different”. Like Koo, she has done terrible things but done them to survive rather than to prosper. Her marriage to Bu-nam might seem like no prize, but it was better than the life she was leaving behind and, crucially, a guaranteed path to Korean citizenship assuming Yoo eventually filled in the marriage papers properly.

Yoo just wants “justice”, but ruthless men like Koo who care about little other than image are not about to let him get it, which is why he finds himself trotted out as a superficial ally to bolster Koo’s appearance at the polls in return for Ryeon-hwa’s “assured” safety. In the end, all Koo’s scheming blows up in his face, but, Lee seems to say, the image always survives and men like Koo know how to spin it to their advantage while men like Yoo will always be at the mercy of the system. A bleak, often confusing, noirish thriller, Idol plunges a knife deep into the heart of societal corruption but finds that truth often matters less than the semblance of it in a society which idolises the superficial.


Idol was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Lee Won-tae, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

81745_1000“Two bad guys will catch the worst man” according to irritated gangster Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok) in Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (악인전, Akinjeon). He doesn’t quite know how right he is, even as he forms an unlikely alliance with a maverick cop himself highly irritated because his lazy colleagues won’t listen to his theory that a spate of unsolved murders are the work of a serial killer. More alike than they’d care to admit, the two “bad guys” team up to do what they have to do in order to make the killing stop but at what price?

A vicious killer (Kim Sung-kyu) has developed a habit of rear-ending solo drivers on lonely roads, stabbing them repeatedly and then leaving them for dead. Maverick cop Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has become convinced that the killings were carried out by the same perpetrator and that they have not yet been identified as a “serial killer” partly because the crimes took place in different districts and there is insufficient co-operation between precincts, and partly because his colleagues think serial killers are something you see in American movies. His superiors just want to close cases, they aren’t particularly concerned with upholding justice or protecting the innocent and so Tae-seok starts thinking outside of the box when he hears that the killer’s latest target was none other than top mob boss Jang Dong-su.

Dong-su got rear-ended after running an errand to have a word with a wayward underling, Hur (Yoo Jae-myung), who has forgotten his place. The killer made a serious mistake going after Dong-su who is a big, handy kind of guy and therefore manages to fend him off, even wounding him in the shoulder despite being badly injured himself. Though the obvious conclusion is that Hur sent someone after him, Dong-su is unconvinced seeing as he had never seen his assailant before and is pretty sure he’s not a member of the gangster underworld. Still, he’s very annoying because a gangster only has power in being respected and right now Dong-su looks a fool. If he wants to get his “professional” life back on track, he needs to get his revenge but to do that he’ll have to cross the floor and work with law enforcement, temporarily teaming up with rogue cop Tae-seok whose heart is in the right place even if he’s not averse to bending the rules.

One of the things which most bothers Tae-seok about amoral killer “K” is that, unlike most serial killers, he kills indiscriminately and purely for pleasure. He has no “type” and generally goes up against those most likely to fight back, unlike your average pattern killer who targets the vulnerable. Like Tae-seok and Dong-su, he is however quite annoyed – this time because someone has “framed” him for a murder he didn’t commit in order to further their own ends. Hugely overconfident and cooly psychopathic, he sits in the dock and asks what makes his crimes different than the state’s if the state is fixing to execute him without proper evidence. Pointedly looking at law enforcement, he affirms that the real villains are those who commit crime with kind faces (say what you like, but at least K looks the part).

When it comes to Tae-seok he might have a point. Conspiring with Dong-su to “kill him with law”, Tae-seok gleefully manipulates the system while giving Dong-su tacit permission to take his revenge as long as “justice” has been properly served. K doesn’t believe in anything, Tae-seok believes in a particular kind of “justice” if not quite in the law, while Dong-su mourns the sense of self-belief that allows you to rule the roost as an all powerful gangster. The three men are a perfect storm, each angry, each resentful, each vowing a particular kind of revenge against the forces which constrain them be they corrupt and lazy superiors, gangsterland disrespect, or the “injustice” of being accused of a crime you did not commit but not being properly credited for the ones you did. Bathed in a garish neon, Lee’s anti-buddy-cop drama embraces its noirish sense of fractured morality with barely suppressed glee as its similarly conflicted heroes pursue their violent destinies, true to their own but dragged to hell all the same.


The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Psychokinesis (염력, Yeon Sang-ho, 2018)

Psychokenesis posterThe animated world of Yeon Sang-ho is dark and cynical, finding only fear and anger in the hopeless vision of contemporary Korea that his films continue to paint. His first live action feature, Train to Busan, began to see a little light as its jaded protagonist finally rediscovered his humanity while the innocent were eventually allowed to find a degree at least of rescue. Psychokinesis (염력, Yeomlyeok), in once sense, continues the theme in centring itself on another of Korean cinema’s bad dads, one so morally corrupted that he rejects all responsibility to others and lives only for the self-indulgent pleasure of the petty scam. Given superpowers, his thoughts turn to finance but eventually lead to an opportunity to right himself in societal eyes by reconnecting with his estranged daughter and accepting his responsibility as a family man.

Seok-heon (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) left his family when his daughter was only ten years old. These days he makes a living as a (lazy) security guard while supplementing his income by pilfering coffee and toilet paper from the company. After drinking spring water from a mountain shrine which, unbeknownst to him, has recently been struck by a mysterious meteoroid, Seok-heon realises he has developed the power of psychokinesis but is only really interested in how it might benefit him financially. That said, Seok-heon’s thoughts do not turn to crime, but to fame – he thinks it might make a good magic act and has heard there can be a lot of money to be made on the circuit.

Shortly after his magical revelation, Seok-heon gets a call from Ru-mi (Shim Eun-kyung) – his now grown up daughter who had been running her own very successful fried chicken restaurant until the shop was compulsory purchased to make way for a shopping mall intended to cater for Chinese tourists. Ru-mi and some of the other shopkeepers have been engaged in a resistance movement, refusing to let their property be taken until they have received fair compensation. During an altercation with the thugs sent in to evict them by force, Ru-mi’s mother was killed – which why is she called, to invite her long lost father to the funeral. Though Seok-heon is not exactly keen to get involved, he eventually realises that his new found abilities might prove useful and help him restore himself in his daughter’s judgemental eyes.

As in Train to Busan, Seok-heon is a cynical and jaded father but this time he’s one very much down on his luck, one of life’s losers whose decision to accept defeat has been lifelong and total. Faced with Ru-mi’s cohort of resistance members, he publicly refuses to help, pointing out that their battle is doomed to failure and it would be better to just give up now. Ru-mi, apparently still capable of additional disappointment, reminds her father that this is what he does – when things look grim he runs away. Ru-mi refuses to be like her dad, and therefore refuses to give up without a fight.

Yeon once again injects some background social criticism into an otherwise friendly tale of dead beat dads and the power of community. Echoing the Yongsan tragedy, Yeon makes the destruction of a neighbourhood to build a shopping mall for tourists his battleground as Ru-mi and her fellow resistance members hole up behind a barricade throwing Molotov cocktails at the police and trying to avoid a fight with the thugs who work for the corrupt construction company behind the whole affair. To make matters worse, Yeon takes us past the site of so much drama at the film’s conclusion, showing us an empty lot, a scar on the landscape memorialising the senselessness of corporate greed which eventually eats itself and stifles any kind of progress economic or social. Ru-mi and the others are powerless to resist their eviction but insist on the compensation they ought to be entitled to which would allow them to begin their businesses again elsewhere so they can continue to earn a living.

Seok-heon is the archetypal apathetic man who thinks it’s pointless to resist and is content to live in as corrupt a way as his society permits. He refuses his responsibility to others, walking past the cleaner being threatened for taking the “free” coffees from the lobby he convinced her were OK to take whilst lamenting her “stupidity” for inexpert pilfering. Battered and defeated, Seok-heon rejoices in pettiness, getting his kicks by shirking at work and getting one over on the bosses by stealing. His first thought on getting powers isn’t their capacity for good, but nor is it a lust for power or revenge, he merely wants to show off a little and earn big bucks – his crime is petulant self-indulgence, not active villainy. Reuniting with his daughter and witnessing her fighting for something she believes in, Seok-heon begins to rediscover his long buried heroism finally becoming a father worthy of his daughter’s respect.

It’s not all plain sailing however as the corporate stooges are not just thuggish but clever and devious. Figuring out that the twin issues to evicting the protestors are the unsolved murder of Ru-mi’s mother and Seok-heon’s superpowers, they set about undermining both – setting up a patsy for the crime and attempting to blackmail Seok-heon by leaking footage of his powers to the news in the hope that the country turns against him. Unable to explain his unusual abilities, TV news pundits do what they always do – blame North Korea, and insist he must be some kind of spy and/or infiltrator.

Working with a much lower budget, Psychokinesis is a lighter affair than might be expected, essentially mixing a hapless dad narrative with a superhero origin story but with a more cheerful tone than one usually associates with Yeon. As expected, you can’t fight city hall and Seok-heon’s assertion that the battle was always a losing one may prove to be correct but what he discovers is that is not necessarily a reason to just give up and walk away. Even if one plan fails, there may be other ways to “succeed” so long as there are enough people willing to stand up for what’s right whilst holding fast to each other, committed to building something better rather than just to tearing something down.


Psychokinesis is currently streaming worldwide via Netflix.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

1987: When the Day Comes (1987, Jang Joon-hwan, 2017)

fullsizephoto931939The political history of Korea is long and complex and oftentimes sad. The events depicted in 1987: When the Day Comes (1987), pivotal as they were, occurred just 30 years ago. Yet the recent past has also been one marked by protest, public anger, and political scandal though this time around with far less fear or danger. The protests of 1987 were a different story. The rule of Chun Doo-hwan, a military dictator who had seized power following the assassination of the previous dictator, Park Chung-hee, was one of extreme oppression which had already seen a widespread massacre of peaceful protestors by the state in Gwangju in 1980. Chun’s term, under the constitution, was set at seven years after which many hoped for a path to modern democracy but those hopes were dashed when he announced an intention to appoint his successor rather than call a free and fair election.

In depicting the climactic events of that summer, Jang Joon-hwan begins with chaos as a doctor is summoned to a mysterious room where a young man lies unconscious in a pool of water. The police have gone too far, and boy has died during interrogation. Aware of the potential danger of the public finding out that the state has in effect murdered a suspect in an act of torture, the head of the ACIB, Park (Kim Yun-seok), orders the body to be quickly cremated. This, however, needs a certificate signed by a prosecutor and Prosecutor Choi (Ha Jung-woo) is fed up with the ACIB and unwilling to cooperate especially as he smells a rat with the cause of death for a healthy 22-year-old listed as a “heart attack”. Not wanting to be on the wrong side of it if it does get out, Choi refuses the cremation and orders an autopsy which in itself triggers a series of other events eventually bringing the government to its knees.

The state remains cruel and duplicitous. The death of Park Jong-chul (Yeo Jin-goo) would become a catalyst and a rallying call, not just for the injustice of it but for the injustice of covering it up. Park’s family are denied their basic rights, his mother and sister literally dragged away from the morgue screaming while his traumatised father looks on in silent agony. They say that Park was a communist, that he died of fear because he weak while claiming all along to have done no wrong. Only when the “truth” begins to emerge does the ACIB decide to hang a few of its guys out to dry, urging them to “patriotically” take one for the team and head to prison for a while with a hefty compensation package to help sweeten the deal.

The death in custody becomes just one event in a situation spiralling out of control. Paranoid in the extreme, the Chun regime is also working on bringing down a “North Korean Spy Network” controlled by a democracy activist on the run who, unbeknownst to them, is also working with the Catholic Church who will eventually prove pivotal in delivering the truth to the people. Meanwhile, the press has also decided to jump ship, ignoring the government’s carefully crafted guidelines in favour of running actual news. Chun’s iron grip is slipping.

Jang’s biggest takeaway is that corrupt regimes crumble when enough people find the strength to go on saying no. It begins with Choi refusing to stamp a certificate then travels to the reporter who won’t back down, passes on to the secret revolutionaries bravely carrying messages at great personal costs, the not so secret clergy who perhaps have more protection to speak their minds (up to a point) than most, and of course the students in the streets who risked their lives to build a better future. One of the few completely fictional characters, the niece (Kim Tae-ri) of a prison guard (Yu Hae-jin) charged with conveying messages to an activist in hiding, proves the most illuminating in her inward struggle towards the democratisation movement. Afraid of the consequences and preferring to remain politically apathetic, she is eventually radicalised through witnessing the brutality of the regime first hand and suffering personal loss because of it.

Playing out as a taut thriller, 1987: When the Day Comes has a lived in authenticity from the motif of being constantly deprived of one shoe by a cruel and absurd regime to the deadly serious ridiculousness of men like Park who hate “the enemy” enough to destroy the thing they claim to love in pursuit of it. Timely and filled with melancholy nostalgia, Jang’s depiction of the pivotal events of 30 years ago is also a rallying cry in itself and an important reminder that the fight for justice is never truly won.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pandora (판도라, Park Jung-woo, 2016)

pandora (korean) posterIn a time of crisis, the populace looks to the government to take action and save the innocent from danger. A government, however, is often forced to consider the problem from a different angle – not simply saving lives but how their success or failure, decision-making process, and ability to handle the situation will be viewed by the electorate the next time they are asked who best deserves their faith and respect. Pandora (판도라) arrives at a time of particularly strained relations between the state and its people during which faith in the ruling elite is at an all time low following a tragic disaster badly mishandled and seemingly aided by the government’s failure to ensure public safety. Faced with an encroaching nuclear disaster to which their own failure to heed the warnings has played no small part, Pandora’s officials are left in a difficult position tasked with the dilemma of sacrificing a small town to save a nation or accepting their responsibility to their citizens as named individuals. Unsurprisingly, they are far from united in their final decision.

As the film opens, a group of children marvel at the towers of the new nuclear plant which has just been completed in their previously run down rural town. Not quite understanding what the plant is, they repeat snippets they’ve heard in their parents’ conversations – that the plant is a “rice cooker” that’s going to make them all rich, or it’s a “Pandora’s box” which may unleash untold horrors. Still, they seem excited about this new and futuristic arrival in their dull little village.

Flashforward fifteen years or so and one way or another all the kids now work at the plant, like it or not, because there are no other jobs available. Kang Jae-hyuk (Kim Nam-Gil) is one such conflicted soul who doesn’t disapprove of the plant in itself but has good reason to fear that the powers that be are not taking good enough care seeing that both his father and older brother were killed during a previous incident at the plant some years previously. Jae-hyuk lives with his widowed mother (Kim Young-ae), sister-in-law (Moon Jeong-Hee), and nephew (Bae Gang-Yoo) but is reluctant to marry his long-term girlfriend Yeon-ju (Kim Joo-Hyun) due to his lack of financial stability and growing disillusionment with small town life.

Meanwhile, the wife of the Korean president has been passed a file by a whistle-blower hoping to bypass the corrupt bureaucracy and go directly to the top. The file, compiled by a worried engineer, details all of the many failings at the recently reconfigured plant which has been recklessly rushed into completion without the proper safety checks and required maintenance procedures. Unfortunately the president does not have time to read the report before a 6.1 magnitude earthquake strikes and destabilises the plant to the extent that it edges towards meltdown.

Unusually, in a sense, the president is a good man who genuinely wants to do the best for his people even if he sometimes ignores sensible advice out of a desire to protect those on the ground. Unfortunately, he is at the mercy of a corrupt cabinet headed by a scheming prime minister intent on withholding information in order to push the president into cynical decision-making models predicated on the idea of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few but which mainly relate to the needs of the prime minister and his cronies in the nuclear industry.

The man in charge of the plant has only been there a few weeks and has no nuclear industry experience. His second in command is a company man and his loyalty lies with his employers – he needs to keep everything functioning and ensure the plant will not be decommissioned. The only voice of reason is coming from the chief engineer who wrote the whistle blowing report and nobly remains on site throughout the disaster putting himself at grave personal risk trying to ensure the plant does not pose a greater danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Claiming a desire to avoid mass panic, the government attempts to order a media blackout, giving little or no information to civilians stranded in the town and fitting communications jammers to prevent the spread of information. The town is eventually given an evacuation order and orderly transportation to a shelter but once there the townspeople are kept entirely in the dark. When they become aware of the full implications of the disaster and try to leave independently, they are locked in while officials flee and leave them behind.

Conversely, the emergency services are hemmed in by regulations which state they cannot act because they would be putting themselves at unacceptable risk. Kang Jae-hyuk, despite his earlier irritation with his place of work, abandons his own cynicism to walk back into the disaster zone to help his friends still trapped inside. The president nobly refuses to order anyone to tackle the disaster directly knowing that it would mean certain death but opts to appeal for volunteers willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Unexpectedly, he finds them. The president is well-meaning but ineffectual, the government is corrupt, and the emergency services apparently overburdened with regulation while under-regulated commercial enterprises put lives in danger. The only force which will save the Korean people is the Korean people and its willingness to sacrifice itself for the common good even in the face of such cynical, self-interested greed.

Despite the scale of the disaster, Pandora takes its time, eschewing the kind of black humour which typifies Korean cinema disaster or otherwise. Serious rigour, however, goes out of the window in favour of overwrought melodrama, undermining the underlying messages of widespread societal corruption from corporations cutting corners with no regard for the consequences to politicians playing games with people’s lives. The powers that be have opened Pandora’s Box, but the only thing still trapped inside is men like Kang Jae-hyuk whose disillusioned malaise soon gives way to untempered altruism and eventually offers the only source of hope for his betrayed people.


Original trailer (English subtitles available from menu)

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)