An extremely disturbing and haunting film. A film that darts around under the garb of a detective thriller, only to reveal itself as a film with a sociological perspective in the end.
The film is about two detectives with contrasting methods of investigation to uncover the culprit behind a string of rapes and murders in an otherwise serene Korean village. The film has kickass acting performances and technical brilliance. Those who haven’t watched it yet, watch it first before you read further. EXTREME SPOILER ALERT!!
The film easily succeeds in getting you emotionally involved as well logically. You are racking your brains and analyzing the suspects along with the detectives. In the final stretches, when the village lights go out as the murderer carries along the young girl in the forest, I kept wanting something “filmy” to happen. Maybe the detective will run in to save her. Maybe the other woman who crossed the girl would hit the murderer on the head with a log. Maybe the little girl would use some technique she learnt in her school drill to save herself from the murderer. Or maybe she’ll use her wits to leave behind some clue. But, none of these maybes happened. What happened was the usual rape and murder. And it left me as agitated and frustrated as the Detective Suh who immediately rushes to the suspect’s house and starts beating him up.
Then, the forensic tests arrive. The moment Detective Suh begins to unwrap it, I could guess that it was going to be negative. The detective, in whom we as viewers had trusted all along, is shattered on reading that the tests were inconclusive. He’s broken (and so are we as audience) and as a sign of his helplessness, he decides to take law into his hands and mete out his own justice. And I thought, ok so this how the movie is going to end. The detective will kill the suspect, who until now I was 100% sure was the murderer and rapist, because a lot of clues had matched. So at least, even if the world at large doesn’t end up knowing who the culprit was, we as an audience will have a sense of closure that justice has been meted out. But, that didn’t happen too.
Detective Park intervenes and holds the murderer by his neck and looks at his face. That’s when I began to recollect how the evidence came together to frame him. The only strong piece of evidence against this guy was that he requested for a specific song on every rainy day and it’s on those days that the murders happened. But, how can that mean he’s the murderer? Maybe something traumatic or emotional happened in his life on a rainy day, which is why he keeps requesting to hear that song. Or maybe he simply likes to hear that song on a rainy day. The murderer could be someone else altogether. Just because his hands are soft too wouldn’t imply he’s a murderer.
And that’s when I realized what this film had been doing all along. It was showing us how the investigators (and thereby the audience) cannot help but bring in their own stereotypes and draw their own narratives around the crime. Recall the way Detective Suh describes in an earlier scene, how the suspect listens to the song, gets aroused and then waits for a female victim. That could very well be a narrative that Detective Suh spins. It could be far, far away from the truth. And thus, the suspect hobbles into the dark abyss of unknowable truths and we like the detectives stand as mute witnesses.
And then the wrapping up happens when Detective Park visits the paddy fields where it all began. Just like him, we’re curious to know from the girl who had visited the same spot earlier. We want to know the murderer’s identity. And then the girl’s reply shocks not only Park but us too. He was ordinary. He looked plain. And Park looking at the audience through the camera seemed to be saying, it could have been any one of us.
It reminded me of what a women rights activist said in a TV show once. After the brutal Delhi rape, the entire nation was screaming for the blood of the miscreants, calling them out to be demons. But, she raised the question that where do these purported demons come from? Did they drop from the sky all of a sudden? The fact that these kind of people with such skewed thoughts exist, shows that there’s something fundamentally wrong in our society. It’s the society that ultimately manufactures such anti-social people. She asked us to think what kind of stuff must have happened in the lives of the accused that pushed them to commit the rape. And then, she said unless those factors are addressed, hanging the accused is not going to help.
Likewise, Memories of Murder is not interested in who committed the serial rapes and murders. It’s not interested in ensuring that he gets punished. It seems to be making a bigger point that the serial murders were a sign of the oppression, torment and trauma that the Koreans went through under the dictatorship regime. The final look that Park gives us could be taken as a cautionary look too. It’s in our hands now to decide what kind of society we want to create for the generations to come. It’s in our hands how we address the factors that aided in the formation of such “demons”. And it’s in our hands how we weed them out.
For further reading, I highly recommend this seven part essay that dissects several aspects of this film – http://www.modernkoreancinema.com/2010/09/memories-of-murder-part-i.html