☞ See also our March 2020 special issue guest-edited by Bong Joon Ho
Anyone who hasn’t noticed that Korean cinema is on a roll hasn’t been paying attention, though the UK releases of Korean movies in the last couple of years have provided a rather lopsided picture of East Asia’s liveliest film culture. There’s no real blame attached to this distortion: South Korea has been changing so fast since it moved to civilian governments in 1993 that even Koreans have trouble keeping up.
Twenty years ago South Korea had one of the most highly regulated (and strictly censored) film industries in the non-communist world; it now has one of the most free and unpredictable, not to mention one of the strongest in fighting off the economic challenge of Hollywood imports. The protectionist French, who have embraced several Korean auteurs, have reason for envy.
Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (Sarineui Chueok) was the country’s box-office champion for 2003 (nearly 2 million admissions ahead of The Matrix Reloaded, the highest-grossing import) and went on to triumph in all the domestic film-awards lists – meaning that critics were at least as enthusiastic about it as general audiences.
This spectacular success looks all the more surprising when you consider the film itself, an open-ended drama about the police hunt for a serial killer that owes almost nothing to any Hollywood model.
Part of its appeal to the Korean audience lies in its committedly local flavour and frame of reference (it re-examines a spate of sensational real-life crimes which many Koreans still remember, and vividly evokes the politically and socially dark days of the 1980s), though it has nothing of the nationalist bombast which has made domestic blockbusters of, for instance, Kang Jae-Kyu’s Shiri and Taegukgi.
Bong’s film starts and ends with images of children, uncomprehending witnesses to the crimes which have left a trail of women’s bodies in the fields of Gyeonggi Province. In between, the film follows the efforts of the local police to track down the rapist-killer. There are several obstacles in their way: their lack of training as detectives, their prejudices, their reliance on instinct, their sexism, their preference for beating up first and asking questions later. The investigation is complicated by the arrival of a more rational and experienced cop from Seoul, who is appalled by their backward, rural methods. Nevertheless, three main suspects emerge in fairly rapid succession.
The first is an obvious scapegoat, a local man with learning difficulties who couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes – but may well have seen one of them carried out. The second is a man caught masturbating at one of the crime scenes. And the third is a seemingly bookish intellectual who, it transpires, has requested a particular song on the radio on the night of every murder.
As attention shifts from one suspect to the next, Bong reverses the roles of the two lead cops: city sophisticate Seo (played by Kim Sang-Kyung, fresh from Hong Sang-Sao’s The Turning Gate) becomes the crazed, instinct-driven avenger, while his slobbish rural counterpart Park (Song Kang-Ho, a fine physical comedian in such films as The Foul King) defends correct procedures.
It won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment or lessen the film’s excitement to know that the crimes are never definitively solved. (No one was convicted for the real-life crimes either.) Although it seems likely that the third suspect is the guilty man, the forensic evidence provides no proof, and Bong anyway succeeds in deflecting blame away from any one individual and on to the social climate.
The most brilliant aspect of a highly achieved film (even better than the performances, the production design and the masterly blending of drama, horror and black humour) is the play with points of view. All movie detective stories centre on seeing and interpreting what’s seen, but Bong skilfully diffuses p-o-v throughout. Since there is no single authority figure capable of solving the crimes, there is no ’authoritative’ point of view either.
It’s a film in which everyone looks, sees and fails to interpret correctly, and it’s this denial of an authoritative eye that finesses the implication of collective blame. This directorial strategy is smart but in no way ‘difficult’, and my guess is that it plays a significant part in the film’s commercial success.
Memories of Murder is only Bong’s second feature; his first, Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flanders ui Gae, 2000), was no less original and engaging, but it failed to reach a wide audience at home or abroad.
The success of Memories has made Bong a national celebrity: he was mobbed by autograph-hunting fans at the recent Teonju International Film Festival, the unwanted attentions of journalists and producers force him to change his mobile number repeatedly and he is now planning a new feature with a significantly higher budget.
He has been in New Zealand, talking to Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop about special effects. The roller-coaster aspect of his career to date is in no way untypical of the Korean film industry in its current volatile state.
The history of Korean cinema in the last decade will make a fat book in due course. It will describe the reinvention of a film industry almost from scratch (hardly anything survives from the pre-liberalisation film industry known as ’Chungmuro’ after the district in Seoul where most companies were based) against the backdrops of a rapidly changing society, rampant cinephilia (a new awareness of the best of international film, fostered by magazines and festivals) and a series of opportunistic investments and disinvestments by the chaebol conglomerates and assorted venture-capital companies.
It’s an industry that has made many mistakes, and has learned fast from making them. It is only now coming to terms with the principles of modern production management and international marketing: no less than eight would-be blockbusters ran out of control in 2002 alone, all made without a single pre-sale in place, all of them flops.
Some festivals and film buffs picked up on the creative surge in Korean movies of the 1990s, and the buffs have been well served by the Korean DVD publishing industry, which routinely adds English subtitles to its discs. (Korean DVDs are consequently sold everywhere from Hong Kong to New York; I’ve even seen a few on sale in London.)
But theatrical distributors have started to catch up only in the last few years, so cinema-goers and critics in Britain, for instance, have had to grapple with such films as Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaseon (2002), Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (2003) without knowing anything much about their production contexts or the histories of their directors. Inevitably this has led to some mistaken presumptions.
Most of the creative leaders of Korean film culture are virtually unknown in Britain. Im Kwon Taek, the only veteran Chungmuro director still active, has made more than 70 films, just two of which have been released here: his Buddhist classic Mandala (1981), which had a run at the ICA a decade ago, and his Cannes prize-winner Chihwaseon.
Hong Sang-Soo’s Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) baffled most British critics in Cannes this year, no doubt because they weren’t aware of his characteristic mix of social realism, psychological probing and formal play, honed in four previous features.
Jang Sun-Woo was one of the pioneers of Korea’s new wave (he began directing innovative features in 1988, well before the shift to civilian governments) and has established himself as the country’s answer to Oshima Nagisa, reinventing his style with every film and chasing the interfaces between sex, politics and Buddhist philosophy. But who could deduce any of that from seeing only Lies (1999), his one film in UK distribution? The list of important directors largely unknown outside Korea could be extended for several paragraphs.
South Korea is currently the only country in the world which has an active film-maker as its minister of culture. Lee Chang-Dong is a novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director; he wrote To the Starry Island and A Single Spark for Park Kwang-Su, and went on to write and direct Green Fish, Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002).
Under his watch, the government-supported Korean Film Commission has rebranded itself as the Korean Film Council (it does sterling work in production support, promotion support, documentation, subtitling and so on), co-production treaties have been signed with other countries and some progress has been made in clearing bureaucratic logjams.
Meanwhile, directors like Bong Joon Ho are taking advantage of the situation to forge a new kind of Korean cinema, channelling their creative ambitions into popular forms without relying on worn-out genre templates.
This arguably makes Memories of Murder a better ’way in’ to Korean film culture than many of the other Korean movies recently seen here. It’s a gimmick-free film that assumes an intelligent and responsive audience. It references the Korean past without belabouring political points or demanding extensive background knowledge. And it ventures into a particular heart of darkness with a cruel twinkle in its eye.
“What struck me most was the purity of his desire to catch the criminal”: Bong Joon Ho on Memories of Murder
Bong Joon Ho (b. 1969) graduated from the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1994 with what is still talked about as one of the wittiest and most original shorts ever made by an academy student. This was Incoherence (Ji Ri Myeol Ryeol, 28 minutes), a social satire in four chapters, the last of which contains the venom. Bong went on to work as co-writer and assistant director on Park Ki-Yong’s Motel Cactus (1997) and as co-writer on Min Byung-Chun’s thriller Phantom, The Submarine (1999).
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His own debut feature was Barking Dogs Never Bite, a notably original comedy-drama whose protagonists are variously dog-lovers, dog-haters and dog-eaters. This established Bong’s distinctive style: a skilful balance between dispassion and empathy, backed up by a sharp eye for social inequalities. (Bong’s preferred English title for the film is A Higher Animal.) It did the rounds of festivals and picked up some prizes, but wasn’t much of a hit in Korea.
Since the commercial and critical success of Memories of Murder Bong has made two digital shorts: Sink and Rise (2003, seven minutes), a sequence-shot vignette designed to be viewed on a third-generation mobile phone, made for a group project to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Korean film academy; and Influenza (2004, 30 minutes), a tragic life story told entirely through surveillance camera footage, made for the Jeonju International Film Festival’s annual digital project. Both are terrific. He is currently preparing his third feature, to be centred on a monster like the one rumoured to inhabit Loch Ness.
This interview was recorded in Seoul in December 2003. Bong spoke mostly in English; grateful thanks to Kwan Jae-Hyun for occasional translation back-up.
Why a murder story?
There’s an old tradition of crime movies in Korean cinema which are rather different from plot-oriented Hollywood thrillers, and I wanted to make something of that sort. The old-style Korean movies are essentially humane and emotional – that’s what I like about them. I’ve always loved crime stories; I read them all the time in middle school. I like seeing how people behave when they’re caught up in crime. And my first feature was about a serial killer of dogs.
The film is based on a series of real murders which began in 1986. How closely did you stick to the facts?
It was the first real case of serial murder in Korea, and I remember it being a sensation at the time. There were ten murders in all, spread over a period of six years, in and around a country town not far from Seoul. There was no financial or revenge motive; these were clear-cut rape-murders of women.
Once I decided to make the film I started to do a huge amount of research. I became obsessed with the facts of the case. I went through all the newspaper reports and then began making interviews with people who’d been involved: journalists, detectives, townspeople who had lived there at the time.
The person who had the strongest influence on me was an ex-cop who’d worked on the case. He broke down in tears several times as we talked. This put me in a quandary – I’ve never liked cops, maybe because of my student experiences fighting them, but talking to this man made me rethink. What struck me most was the purity of his desire to catch the criminal.
In writing the script I reduced the time-span to one or two years and reduced the number of victims. Most of the more gruesome details are taken directly from the official record. The murder of the schoolgirl, for instance, closely follows the most brutal of the real murders – but I added the detail of the Band-Aid. Actually, I filched it from Kubrick’s Lolita.
But your characters are fictional?
In 1996 there was a play about the serial murders called Come To See Me by Kim Gwang-Rim. I was working as an assistant director when I saw it. I ended up using several ideas from the play: the succession of three prime suspects, the link between the murders, and the playing of a song on a radio request show.
In reality, many detectives came from Seoul to join the investigation and the play dramatises the tension between them and the local police – but it shows them pursuing lines of enquiry independently of each other. I felt it would be more interesting if they had to work together and exchange roles.
My producer Tcha Sung-Jai didn’t want to bother buying the rights to the play since the whole thing is based on fact anyway, but I liked some aspects of it enough to insist. The characters, though, are my own inventions.
The very first scene in the police station defuses the idea that you can recognise criminal ’types’, and the climax leaves us unsure whether the criminal has been found or not.
Maybe the main theme is precisely the anonymity of crime. In reality, the murders were never solved. The more I researched the case, the more I came to feel that the general social-political situation of that time was as much to blame as any individual. I don’t know myself whether the third suspect is the real killer or not.
Given the pace of change in Korea. it must have been hard to recreate the mid 1980s.
Very, very hard. There’s almost nothing from the period left, even in rural areas.
My production designer and I found sites in Jeollado Province which gave us what we needed, and we worked hard to exaggerate the feeling of the past by highlighting older props and buildings from the 1960s and 1970s. We used the railway to unify locations that are actually miles apart; the idea of setting the climax beside the railway tunnel came from that strategy. I’d already started shooting when an assistant director found that location and I decided to use it.
I wanted to emphasise time more than place, but I didn’t want to be too specific about it – so I ruled out the idea of showing President Chun Doo-Hwan on television, for instance. Of course, many people seeing the film in Korea have first-hand memories of the period.
As in Barking Dogs Never Bite you bring in elements of superstition — but don’t take them very seriously.
The reality was funnier and more bizarre than anything in the film. A shaman advised the cops to strip naked at the seashore and bow to a bowl of sacred water. The chief of police actually did that. And while doing it they were mistaken for North Korean spies and had to run. I decided not to use that; I’m obsessed with what you can read in faces, so I stuck with close-ups of my lead actors.
Was the film hard to cast?
I had three of the leads in my mind while I was writing the script. Song Kang-Ho, who plays the local cop Park, had told me he was interested in working with me. Byun Hye-Bong, who plays the local chief of police, had played the janitor in Barking Dogs Never Bite. And I ’discovered’ Park Hae-Il, who plays the third suspect, in the play – this was long before he starred in Park Chan-Ok’s Jealousy Is My Middle Name.
I didn’t think of Kim Sang-Kyung for the role of the Seoul cop until I saw him in Hong Sang-Soo’s The Turning Gate. He came alive for me then in a way that never happened in his television dramas. Hong Sang-Soo introduced him to me, and he turned out to be exactly right.
I gave you a copy of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell when you visited the London film festival with ’Barking Dogs’, and you’ve said in many Korean interviews that it was a big help to you in writing Memories of Murder. How?
I was already interested in the Jack the Ripper case before I came to London. It’s one of the great unsolved serial-murder cases, so it’s an obvious precedent for the Korean case, despite the very different context.
I was curious to know how British authors had approached an unsolved mystery from a century ago, and I was very happy to find an entire Jack the Ripper section in one London bookshop: fiction, essays, speculative solutions, the lot. One day before you gave me From Hell I’d bought Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which turned out to be a primary source for Alan Moore.
Reading From Hell was a revelation: Moore pushed me to start thinking less about the actual killer and more about the spirit of the times which produced the murders. Moore ultimately blames the age itself.
This feature was originally published in the September 2004 issue of Sight & Sound. A phrase has been altered to use more inclusive language.