That the act of film viewing, and it follows, the writing of film criticism, resembles the patterned efforts of meaning-making performed by detectives when solving crimes is not a new thought. It’s true of reading too. The pleasures of, say, Agatha Christie are wholly related to the fact that the puzzle-like nature of detection looks awfully similar to the act of literary evaluation: weighing evidence found in a text’s pages against claims to the contrary, prying open the hidden, searching for a coherence of knowledge against absolute contingency, the challenge of verification. Every reader and every critic knows this. But that pleasure is problematized—or at least it feels like it is—when reference is made to a real life crime.
So think of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, which takes as its subject the case which afflicted the rural city of Hwaseong, in Gyeonggi Province between 1986 and 1991, during which ten women were violated and killed. After a resurgence of interest in the case caused by the killer finally admitting his guilt, and the notable reception of Parasite, Bong’s 2003 film is being released this week by Curzon; and in its closely modulated states of resignation and chance, its tightening structure and trained observations about the society in which the film is placed, it appears to me like a preliminary statement about Bong’s cinema as a whole: it provides a clarifying adumbration about, and ends up being in profound conversation with, the director’s filmography as a whole.
Bong’s is a cinema of sociology: and as always with sociology, there are levels. The first level is made up of the murders and the inept and cruel attempt to apprehend their perpetrator by officers from the National Police Agency (the case opens with Park Doo-man [Song Kang-ho] and Cho Yong-koo [Kim Roi-ha]); the second level is the media spectacle that greets the murders, and the way the intensity of the investigation and the press coverage of it filters down into everyday conversation and therefore public consciousness; the third is the general paranoia of South Korean society at that moment, of which the first level can seen as symptom, which the film isolates in regular sequences of nighttime blackouts, a scene set during a drill in a local school to ready the pupils for possible chemical attacks, and frequent notices about pro-democracy demonstrations (the time in which the film is set was a pivotal point in South Korea’s transition from dictatorship to democracy). Each of these three levels in turn communicates an important aspect about the repressive society in which these murders took place.
Repression breeds fantasies, some harmless, some nurturing, some calamitous. Think of Kwok Seol-yung (Jeon Mi-seon), detective Park’s partner, and her earnest wish for him to quit when the case begins, as was always likely, to take its toll on their life together. This is the fantasy of life better than the one presently lived; and is there one more commonplace than this? But what of Park and Cho’s fantasy of justice, and the increasingly sadistic means they make use of to attain it? This isn’t harmless: the first suspect the pair arrest is Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik), whose intellectual disability they exploit to their convenience and who they, to a real extent, torture. This fantasy is collapsed in a slow-motion tracking shot, during a staged reenactment in the paddy where one of the murders took place, which both mocks the corruption of the officers by extending the duration and moves in parallel to the line of onlookers and media observers documenting the injustice: increasing the spectacle. And what of misogynistic fantasies, whether those of the murderer’s, detective Cho’s (he’s shown stamping on a woman during a demonstration, later attacking a student during a late-in-the-day bar brawl), those of the second suspect (who’s caught masturbating at a crime-scene), or the one shared by the entirety of the male police staff—just before the reenactment, the men whistle and laugh at their colleague dressed up as one of the victims: which is a fantasy of levity, and in the context, this must be indistinguishable from misogyny.
Atop the many textual interactions of Memories of Murder Bong introduces a character who adds an entirely new set of potential binary oppositions. This is Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a young detective tapped for the case from Seoul. His first appearance is inauspicious: after trying to engage a passing woman in conversation, Park happens to stop by, figuring him to be harassing her, and ceremonially dropkicks him. “Are you a detective?,” he tellingly asks, because Seo is useless in a fight. The contrasts between Park and Seo emerge from the following notions: country and city; intuition and intellection; body and mind; forgery and rigour. And yet on the last of these Seo doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence: when he sees how Park and Cho lead on Baek to confess what he cannot confess, how he’s treated in the basement, he raises no complaints beyond dismissively turning away; or, when he witnesses Park tamper with evidence, he says nothing. He’s complicit in the state’s ineffectuality, the police’s deception and abuse of power. But Park and Cho’s distrust of elites, and fear that any credit due them in the case’s solving may be struck from the record, is signalled early in Seo’s arrival: for the second of the three occasions in which the film visits the ditch where the first victim was found, the trio are briefing the police chief on the data they’ve gathered from the murders; but Park and Cho can establish no pattern: well, Seo can—rainy days, he proffers, all the victims were killed on rainy days, and while wearing red. As he relates this to the chief, the camera pans from Park, Cho and the police chief to a two-shot of the police-chief and Seo only, in a move representing the fear the more unsophisticated detectives harbour about their new partner stealing the limelight.
Memories of Murder, Mother, and Parasite, the three I take as his Bong’s best works, demonstrate how a precisely negotiated structure and tone can damn a set of characters’ attempts to alleviate their circumstances, their loved-ones’ lives, their society. These films have a more exacting analytical relationship with that society out of which they arrive, rather than the bigger, more adventurous and theoretical, but ultimately vaguer designs of The Host, Snowpiercer, and Okja. Mother for instance lays bare a society’s disdain for the neurodivergent; Parasite documents how a working-class unit is systematically doomed to fail in its attempt to scale the scary verticality of present-day (because it’s too optimistic to call it “late”) capitalism. In Bong’s fantastically depressing films, the energy exerted by the characters is always being counteracted by an encroaching melancholy, as though failure is morphing from a possibility to a likelihood, and near the end or by the end, into a near certainty. This coincides with a narrative structure that suggests the desired resolution, encourages it even—only to frustrate that desire.
Such is how things proceed in Memories of Murder: a plausible suspect is caught, but unreadable both by Park’s intuitive methods and by Seo’s forensic ones. What the final minutes of the film do yield, however, are two of the best, most rhetorically astute close-ups in Bong’s filmography. One is of a suspect, who was interviewed earlier in the film and found to be inscrutable; Park is looking at him closely, trying, with his supposedly uncanny ability to read people, to figure out finally whether he’s guilty or not. The close-up is silhouetted by the darkness of a tunnel, emphasising the lack of clarity, as if the unsettling look on the suspect’s face (his not-quite smile, not-quite-blankness is unnerving) didn’t do that already. It’s the final shot that stings, stings like the shot of Kim Ki-taek (also played by Song), in Parasite, crossing his arm over his eyes and announcing he has “no plan.” More than a decade later, Park, no longer a detective, returns to the ditch, revisiting the site of a haunting non-conclusion. A young girl asks him what’s doing, since she’s seen another man doing the same thing recently. Realising what this means, Song’s face turns to the camera, lit up with a mixture of excited panic and despair at the time lost, and with a dash of hope perhaps, and looks right into the lens—a gesture that says, “I will find you yet.” This is a weird case in the history of film rhetoric: a shot aimed at both an audience entire and at one person specifically. But now, seventeen years after the fact, its aptness is all the more apparent.