It is my policy to never purchase dvds of films that I’ve not seen at the theatres online, a rather bizzare and perhaps antiquated school of thought seeing the cinematic experience as a rite of passage, a self imposed vetting process before the film can be canonized, elevated to dvd-worthy status. However, because of inherent market forces at work that favours the mainstream blockbusters releases rather than your occasional arthouse film, a considerable number of excellent foreign films ( read non hollywood ) slips past our theatres without ever been noticed, save for some limited screenings at our annual Singapore Film Festival packed into 2 short, hectic weeks.
Now this is when the exception to the rule appears. Sometimes the obssessed film purist, having done some homework and research, will take the plung, calculated risks to import contraband, films that have yet gone through artistic apotheosis. So far there’s been a fair share of hits and misses, with films like I.G’s lacklustre anime Blood, and highly accomplished Korean film Take Care of My Cat, which I had missed at the film festival.
This time round, I struck cinematic gold.
Between the years of 1986 and 1991, a small village in Korea’s Gyeonggi Province was witness to the rape and murder of 10 women, all in the same groteque and brutal manner. Korea had never before experienced serial murders of this kind, and an intense media frenzy and police investigation followed. As the murders continued to take place over the years, investigators grew more desperate, at one point even consulting a shaman who advised them to move the gate of the police station to a more favorable location (which they did, to no avail). Ultimately all their efforts would be in vain, and to this day nobody knows who the murderer was or whether he is still alive.
In 1996, the poignant memories of this incident were reshaped into a successful stage play directed by Kim Kwang-rim. The dramatic intensity of the story attracted the interest of several filmmakers who wished to make a film of the material, but ultimately it would be Bong Joon-ho, the talented director who debuted in 2000 with Barking Dogs Never Bite, who would be charged with the task. Bong took the stage play and, consulting historical documents, wrote a screenplay focusing on two of the police investigators. Bong’s primary addition to the material was to highlight the era in which the murders took place — a time in which the Korean populace was struggling to shake off its authoritarian and militaristic past.
The end result is perhaps Korea’s biggest event film since Joint Security Area, a masterfully directed, superbly acted film which is at turns blackly humorous, thought-provoking, and horrifying. The film stars top actor Song Kang-ho (JSA) and Kim Sang-kyung (Turning Gate) as two investigators, the former a local policeman and the latter a detective who comes from Seoul to assist in the case. The first part of the film focuses on the two men’s characters and the rivalry that builds between them. As time passes, however, the narrative becomes more complex, as our leads begin to transform under pressure and as we see references to the social situation in Korea at the time, when the government was too busy suppressing its own citizens to put resources into a proper investigation.
Although this movie features one of the best performances ever from Song Kang-ho, one of Korea’s most talented actors, the film’s amazing ensemble cast almost succeeds in stealing his spotlight. Minor characters such as the old police chief (played by Byun Hee-bong), the slightly retarded Baek Kwang-ho (played by theatre actor Park No-shik, who now has his own fan club), violent investigator Yong-gu (Kim Rae-ha, in his most prominent role to date), Song Kang-ho’s girlfriend Sul-young (played by Jeon Mi-seon, who was Han Suk-kyu’s old flame in Christmas in August) and the new police chief (Song Jae-ho, also in Double Agent) are only a few of the memorable characters created by this skilled cast. Park Hae-il from Jealousy Is My Middle Name also takes a role towards the end of the film that is sure to stay in the memory of viewers.
Another impressive aspect of this film are its visuals. The production set a record for using the most locations in any Korean film to date, in an effort to recreate the underdeveloped rural landscape of the mid-80s. Director of photography Kim Hyung-gu (who also shot Musa, One Fine Spring Day and Chen Kaige’s Together) creates striking images out of ordinary objects, with earthy browns and yellows painting an unforgettable portrait of small town life.
Recently, many critics have begun saying that Korean audiences no longer appreciate good films, that they prefer instead the light comedies that have dominated the box-office over the past couple years. The smashing popular success of Memories of Murder now acts as a counterweight to that argument, signalling that ambitious, serious, well-made productions in Korea still have potential if they can capture the imaginations of ordinary viewers. ( Review by Darcy Parquet, english subtitler for Memories of Murder )
Point in note : Music for this film was written by Taro Ishiwaro, a prolific composer who has done other outstanding music for films by Shohei Imamura, as well as the more familiar Japanese serial The Inanimate World, starring Nanako Matsuhimoto.
Easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, though sadly not in a theatre, where the emotional impact would have been exponential.
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