Film Follies, Subtitle Subversive

Subtitle Subversives- Memories of a Murder

South Korea is home to a thriving film industry, full of talented artists willing to take big risks in both plot mechanics and visual style in an effort to push the envelop and make their films resonate emotionally with their audiences. With this knowledge at the forefront of my mind, I sat down with great excitement to watch Memories of Murder. A film that has garnered a great deal of critical praise since its release in 2003.
The film is based on the rape and murder of eleven young women that took place between 1986 and 1991 in a rural Korean province. The murders were the first known case of a serial killer in Korean history. The case remains unsolved to this day.
Memories of Murder follows the three detectives who investigated the murders while deftly setting that investigation against the political turmoil South Korea was experiencing at the time. For those of you unfamiliar with South Korean history, the country was ruled by General Chun Doo-hwan at the time. He had taken power in a coup de’tat in 1979, declaring martial law and brutally suppressing any opposition. His government was toppled in 1987, Memories of Murder coincides with the last years of his authoritarian government.
That is a good amount of historical information for a movie review I know, but all of this info is necessary to truly understand the context of the film and its true aims. The tone of Memories of Murder is incredibly uneven. At the start, you might mistake it for a clone of an American buddy cop action-comedy movie. The corrupt cops are so buffoonish as to be comical caricatures and the outsider detective from the big city with all his fancy notions about forensics and due process is a cliche straight from the buddy cop trope store.
It’s hard to get drawn into a taut murder mystery when even the characters themselves don’t seem to take the rapes and murders of two young women all that seriously. Only after the bodies continue to surface and coerced confession after coerced confession are contradicted by the evidence do the detectives(and the tone of the film) begin a downward descent into darkness.
But by now it is too late. The investigation has been so badly bungled from the beginning that it has become a hopeless cause. Blind men groping in the dark for clues while the investigative mistakes they made at the start come back to haunt them.
If you go into this film expecting something akin to Zodiac, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As a murder mystery, this movie fails.Memories of a Murder, despite its title and plot, was never meant to be about a string of unsolved murders. That’s not the point of the film.
Memories of a Murder is an incredibly powerful indictment of the fascist police state. It makes the case that strongman policing tactics not only don’t work but are actually an impediment to solving the investigations they’re supposed to solve. That by ignoring due process and the actual trail of evidence in favor of gut feelings and the usual suspects, the police are complicit in the continued crimes of the uncaught perpetrator.Taken in that context, this movie is a masterpiece.
From its subtle political message to its informative snapshot of what it was to live in South Korea in the mid-eighties, Memories of Murder is a worthy recipient of your time and I am happy to include it on my list of Subtitle Subversives.

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