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The hidden depths of Korean film

A still from the film Memories of Murder

hen thinking about obsessive film cultures, it's a set group of countries that spring to most minds. India is in there, of course, as the world's most prolific producer of movies. America is the other juggernaut in the set. France, Hong Kong or Japan might come up. Few, however, think of South Korea, a country whose cinematic tradition is undergoing a bona fide 21st century renaissance. Their work has always been strong, enjoying far greater than average patronage from an extremely cinephilic population. What makes its recent output particularly striking is the increasing tendency of a younger generation of filmmakers to turn outwards in order to better look inwards, re-appropriating what have hitherto been considered foreign genre and storytelling tropes to examine distinctly national concerns. The result is not Ghajini-style 'homage' but, rather, auteurist cinema of the best kind; deeply personal work that, nevertheless, manages to remain relevant to audiences while actually giving them a good time at the movies.

The movement is spearheaded by a number of directors; Lee Changdong, Kim Ki-Duk, Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon all spring to mind as masters of genre reinvention and confounders of compulsive categorisers everywhere. It would be insultingly reductionist to try to summarize their work in one column so I decided to focus on the single source to which my love for the South Koreans can be traced: Bong Joon-Ho's 2003 serial killer pic Memories of Murder. Based on a series of real unsolved murders that occurred between 1986 and 1991 in a small provincial town, it follows the efforts of morose, corpulent local detective Park and his streamlined big city counterpart Seo to track the killer. A remarkable film, it uses the details of the failed investigation to paint a dejected portrait of rotting civil society. This is not the glittering South Korea of K-pop videos and cable TV ads. Instead, we get a desolate small-town landscape where crumbling industrial exteriors reflect the decay within. Infused with pessimism and a pervasive sense of torpor (even as it maintains a sharp narrative pace), the story is less about the investigation than it is about a basic betrayal of principles on both a national and a personal level. Law enforcement and civic infrastructure is depicted as corrupt and incompetent. Police torture civilians, Park visits a shaman in hopes of divining a suspect name, resources are misallocated, the only female police officer (far smarter than many of her colleagues) is restricted to secretarial duties. Given the real-life roots of its subject matter, it is no spoiler to reveal that there is no happy ending and that the bad guy is not caught. We are left with hopeless characters betraying their professions and morals, all in pursuit of a phantom. Late in the film, hitherto responsible Seo beats a possible perpetrator in an abandoned tunnel and when Park appears with inconclusive DNA results, he tosses them aside and shoots at the man anyway, throwing away his principles in as despondent a scene as you will ever see on film.

As a study of decaying institutions, Memories of Murder rivals the excellent documentaries that are another hallmark of this South Korean New Wave

This scathing critique of Korean institutions is gift-wrapped in a dark mirror image of American serial killer movies. As a portrayal of investigative obsession, it feels a lot like a skewed version of David Fincher's Zodiac by way of the surreal, venal small towns of David Lynch's work. But the film is all his own: individual concerns about the decay of Korean society made accessible by that most universal of boogeyman genres. Deeply political or not, Bong does not shy away from genre pleasures. An early stalking sequence rivals the best of John Carpenter as a terrified woman trudges through the fields at night, increasingly aware of someone behind her. Later, the cops pursue a crime-scene trespasser in a dynamic set-piece chase that culminates in a strangely busy nighttime stone quarry. Most surprising is the fact that this is as much a dark comedy as anything else. I laughed out loud more times during this dark, brutal police procedural than I have at many ostensible comedies. Incongruous humour is a hallmark of East Asian cinema and when timed properly, the results are more absurdist, hilarious and – somehow – illuminating than my favourite Monty Python sketches. Forensics 'experts' tumble clumsily down hills, rolling through crime scenes. An impassive maintenance man tinkers with a boiler while a hysterical suspect manufactures a 'confession' post-beating. Park's cretinous local partner literally dropkicks anyone he doesn't like. But this comedy is tempered with dead-serious results. The camera pans from the laugh-inducing pratfalls of the forensics men to the not-so-amusing corpse lying nearby. The dropkicking cop's propensity for violence leads to a serious outburst of bloodletting at a local eatery. Nothing is without consequence.

As a study of decaying institutions, Memories of Murder rivals the excellent documentaries that are another hallmark of this South Korean New Wave. But through the community's response to the situation, it dwells on the more personal anxieties (and obsessions) of South Korean society, ultimately becoming a forensic examination of failure itself.  A post-mortem of national integrity though it might be, the film is a sign of the extreme vitality of South Korean cinema, every bit the equal of more widely celebrated national filmmaking traditions.

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