Who to Blame?

in 51st San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Philip Cheah

Inspired by the gruesome rapes of South Korea’s first recorded serial killer case, Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder” is a chilling ride through the country’s tormented past. Set in the ’80s, the height of Korea’s military dictatorship, Memories becomes an allegory about how oppression and corruption have permeated the nation’s psyche and created an unconscious dysfunction.

Between 1986-91, a small village in the Gyeonggi Province witnessed the rape and murder of 10 women, all carried out in a coldly calculated grotesque manner. The victims were always meticulously tied up, raped, then murdered.

Memories is Bong’s second film after “Barking Dogs Don’t Bite” (2000). His characteristic light-handed touch and his predilection for showing perversity run through this film as well. Song Kang-ho (“Joint Security Area”) plays a village detective who is not hesitant to torture and frame potential suspects without sufficient proof. Bong shows plenty of police brutality, as a way of counter-pointing the murderer’s cruelty. But Song’s character is played with a comedic touch and he becomes almost likeable in his bungling way.

A city cop who volunteers for this case, is played by Kim Sang-kyung (“Turning Gate”), who shows analytical rigour in understanding the killer’s modus operandi. Finally, he too becomes obsessed that he has found the killer, a quiet worker, played by Park Hae-il (“Jealousy Is My Middle Name”). In the end, they are all obsessed with the unknown enemy, in the same way that the country’s dictator wiped out any opposition he found. Bong intersperses the film with scenes of riots and military clampdowns. In one ironic scene when a murder is expected to take place, the police find that they can’t call for reinforcements as all officers are involved elsewhere in riot control.

Cinematographer Kim Hyung-gu, who also shot Hur Jin-ho’s “One Fine Spring Day” and Chen Kaige’s “Together”, beautifully shot Memories in earthy hues of greens, browns and yellows. Memories is a big hit in Korea with admissions hitting over four million. It’s a story that has obsessed the country. In Bong’s hands, the film becomes a way of sharing the guilt.