The Dark Side of Modernization

Paper by Patrick Gordon-Davis.

The lifeless body of a woman is found in a roadside gutter, stuffed underneath a slab of concrete, gagged, bound, and strangled. This is the inciting event of Memories of Murder (2003), director Bong Joon-ho’s second film. Though ostensibly the focus of the film, the serial killings function as a sort of red herring, deliberately misdirecting the audience through manipulation of genre conventions, to tell a story of larger significance. Memories is a subtle investigation of the societal dysfunction resulting from the conflict between traditional Korean society and rising Americanized modernization, supervised by the military dictatorship of the time––a serial killing is one of many symptoms of this dysfunction. Particular attention will be given to the penultimate scene in the film, where it is conclusively revealed that both traditional and modern approaches have failed to penetrate the inscrutability of the truth, the philosophies guiding the two detectives have been inverted, and justice is nowhere to be found. The crux of the matter is that modernization is unable to solve the problems it is creating.

In order to fully grasp the deeper meaning of Memories, it is important to first consider the historical and cultural contexts implied by the setting of the film. For one thing, the film is set in the late 1980s, “during the darkest years of Korea’s military dictatorship” (Klein 882). For another, between 1986 and 1991, ten women, aged 13 to 71, were raped and murdered by an unidentified individual, in and around the city of Hwaseong. Memories draws heavily from this infamous case, which was, in fact, the first ever occurrence of serial killing in Korea––but by no means the last. Many Korean criminologists attribute the steadily increasing phenomenon of “individualized crimes,” such as serial killing, to the country’s rapid modernization (Lee, par. 11). In the opinion of Kwon Il-yong, South Korea’s first criminal profiler, “The late 1980s and early 1990s were when a sharp shift in crime motivations occurred, as fast changes in society and the economy left behind people at the margins of society, but the authorities failed to adapt to the times” (Jun, par. 7). Every Korean had a place in society, until modernization upended the traditional social bonds, leading to a more individualistic culture, plagued by isolation and alienation––and hence, individualized crimes. To the Korean way of thinking, therefore, serial killings are not simply random acts of disturbed individuals; rather, they represent a failure of this new society to provide for the social and economic needs of its most marginalized members. As such, “society itself shares some responsibility for [these] crimes” (Lee, par. 13). Since no killer is apprehended in Memories, the audience is left no culprit to point to, except for society itself.

Bong uses the self-evident evil of the killer as a springboard to critique these deeper societal ills. Characteristic of his style, there is, in the terminology of Korean cinema scholar Christina Klein, a “surface crime” and a “deep crime” (882). In The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006), for instance, “the monster is the device that gives the narrative its structure,” according to Klein––it “is what it is,” as Bong himself put it (888). Likewise, the killer in Memories is an empty symbol with no meaning in itself, merely an instigating surface crime; the purpose of the film is to expose the deeper crime: “corruption and abuse of police power, the casual disregard of civil rights, and the government- stimulated fear of North Korea as a means to keep the civilian population in check” (882). The first two points are more obvious, demonstrated clearly by the brutal treatment of far-fetched murder suspects by Detective Park and his “comic, but disturbing sidekick,” Detective Cho (Jeon 75). The latter point is articulated rather subtly, by means of several brief references to civilian air raid drills and the police crackdown on pro-democratic protests. In one scene, “the deep crime literally forms the background to the surface crime,” as Seo goes through case files while lights are blacked-out for an air raid exercise (882). According to Bong, “the most important part of this movie is the ‘blackout’ motif,” since it epitomizes for him life under the South Korean military dictatorship. This
“artificial darkness” constitutes the deep crime (882).

Against this backdrop of political oppression, a conflict is played out between traditional Korean values and modern Americanized ones, as embodied by the characters of Detectives Park Doo- man and Seo Tae-yoon. The old-fashioned detective, Park, believes that authentic Korean detectives investigate “with their feet,” as opposed to their heads. Relying on intuition, tradition, and his self- described “folk wisdom,” Park believes he is able to ascertain the guilt or innocence of an alleged criminal by looking in their eyes. His methods are depicted as ineffectual and incompetent; most every hunch he pursues is patently false. Seo, meanwhile, works methodically to comb through all available evidence, under the assumption that “documents never lie.” As such, “Seo alone makes progress toward solving the crime” (Klein 879). These modern practices arouse the ire of a drunken Park, who tells Seo: “brainy geeks like you can go the hell to America.” On at least three occasions, the two detectives get into physical confrontations.

The climax of the film reveals that neither ideal is ultimately capable of solving the murders. Leading up to this scene, Park has begun to doubt his earlier convictions, and goes so far as to admit he was barking up the wrong trees all along. Although the detectives have yet to nail their new prime suspect, they seem to be on the verge of cracking the case, thanks in large part to Seo’s approach. For once, the whole precinct seems to be united in their embrace of this one strategy; Park awaits the results of the DNA test from America as anxiously as anyone. Ostensibly, the story arc is winding up to deliver a tidy resolution to the audience, now that the foolish rural detectives have realized the error of their ways, and the killer’s modus operandi has been identified––perhaps a dramatic chase will ensue, Park will achieve his redemption by dying a hero, they will finally catch the killer, and justice will be served. Cognizant of this expectation, Bong weaponizes American genre conventions by playing into them for a time, only to subvert them in the end. According to Bong, the reason they cannot catch the murderer––probably both from a practical and a story writing perspective––is because “in Korea there was an incompetence and crudeness in the very ideals of the 1980s” (Klein 882). Folk wisdom is certainly not equipped to tackle a phenomenon so uniquely modern as a serial killer, but neither is modern wisdom.

The climactic scene begins with another murder. The previous night, an exhausted Seo had literally fallen asleep on the job, allowing Park Hyeon-gyu, the prime suspect, to evade police surveillance. Thus, the detectives have no way of knowing whether it was Hyeon-gyu or not, who is responsible for the crime scene discovered the following morning. Like a group of mourners, everyone is dressed in black. The camera dollies backwards, following Seo as he walks through the dreamlike procession of police, reporters, and bereaved family members. One police officer throws up, another smokes, a reporter films a close-up of the body, and relative is led off, sobbing. Seo, who conspicuously does not have an umbrella, is drenched by the rain, which runs down his face like an outpouring of tears. This close-up of Seo’s face, the background out of focus, is a very personal and emotional moment. Not only does he feel partially responsible for this murder, since he lost track of Hyeon-gyu, but he also knows this girl. Mirroring the close-up when he first put the Band- Aid on her back, he reaches down and removes it, and then further pulls down her shirt to cover up her exposed back.

As the rash emotions of Detective Park were overpowered by Seo’s rationality, now Seo’s rationality is overcome by emotion. With vengeful wrath in his eyes, Seo goes off and collects Hyeon- gyu, dragging him to the dark mouth of the train tunnel, which has appeared in the background of previous shots twice before. Emphasizing Seo’s unbridled rage, the camera shakes wildly and cuts indiscriminately, briefly inviting the audience to subjectively take part in this confused experience. Then there is a sudden cut to a smooth zoom-in on the tunnel; seconds later, Seo enters the shot, dragging and abusing a pathetic Hyeon-gyu. After an insert shot of Seo unholstering a gun, the camera cuts to a reverse shot, from the inside of the tunnel, looking out––one silhouette pointing a gun at another, on his knees. Similarly, parallel close-ups of the enigma Hyeon-gyu and the irate Seo (who is demanding that Hyeon-gyu confess to the murders) cuts to a calm overhead shot, as soon as Seo resumes assaulting him. Bong’s goal in switching between these subjective close-ups and objective long shots is to allow the audience to experience Seo’s understandable anger, then to distance them enough that they can analyze his actions critically, and decide for themselves whether he is doing the right thing.

By this point, it is clear that the essences of Detectives Park and Seo have been flipped––their character arcs are complete. Now Seo is the one abusing the suspect, demanding he confess. When Hyeon-gyu says, “I killed them all. That’s what you want to hear, right?,” Seo wants more than anything to believe him, and seems nearly ready to shoot him on the spot. Seo’s emotional urge to close the case has overpowered his rational faculty for justice; he is forcing the pieces of the puzzle to fit together, ignoring any evidence to the contrary, as Park and the other detectives have done throughout the film. At this moment, Park enters the scene, bringing an envelope with the results of the American DNA test. It is no accident that Park is the one to provide these results, as he has also been profoundly changed by the investigation, in the opposite way. This inversion is reinforced by their responses to finding out that Hyeon-gyu is not a match. “There’s a mistake,” says Seo, an earnest tear running down his cheek, as tragic music starts to play, “This document is a lie. I don’t need it.” As final proof of his transformation, Park prevents Seo from shooting Hyeon-gyu, and instructs the alleged murderer, “Look in my eyes”––his trademark technique. A series of close-ups lasting a full 68 seconds intercut the steely faces of the two characters, each faltering slightly. His former irrational certitude having evaporated, Park admits simply, “I don’t know,” and tells Hyeon-gyu to go. Finally, there is a cut to a similar close-up of a deeply conflicted Seo. Each has accepted that his ideal of justice has failed to provide any conclusive answers, and so has been drawn to the inverse position.

The intimate close-ups are interrupted by the startling appearance of an oncoming train, which poses one last test. Once again, Park does the rational thing, intervening to stop a disconsolate Seo from shooting Hyeon-gyu as he flees down the tunnel. “That’s enough,” Park says, as they watch Hyeon-gyu disappear into the darkness. The camera lingers on their faces, as they silently contemplate the fact that they have failed to enact justice. For the second time, a reverse shot from inside the tunnel is employed, showing the silhouettes of Park and Seo at the mouth of the tunnel. The music winds down to a conclusion, and the scene fades to black.

Considering the significance assigned by the director to the “blackout motif,” it is of no surprise that the color black features quite prominently in the final scene. To achieve the proper atmosphere, Bong employs a dark mise-en-scène, relying on desaturated colors, night scenes, and often dismal surroundings. This could be termed an “anti-aesthetic,” as it “coolly keeps us distant but no less compelled through its cruel tonality” (Coulter 3). The murder victim, dressed in white, is bound with black rope; every other character, except for the two detectives, wears entirely black clothing; and the blackness of the tunnel is almost overwhelming. In fact, Park wears a brown jacket, and both detectives wear white sneakers––this undoubtedly has symbolic connection to the white sneakers they gave by way of apology to Baek Kwang-ho, the mentally handicapped man who they initially suspected of the murders, and later indirectly got killed. Since the color white is also associated with the murder victims, and it was supposed that Korean detectives investigate “with their feet,” perhaps it is also to suggest that whatever their faults, the detectives have good intentions, a connection with the victims and the country, or all of these things. The cinematography seems to highlight a connection between the tunnel in the penultimate scene and the gutter where the first murder victim was discovered, which is shown in the opening and closing scenes of the film. The symbolic connection between them is that each is a black hole, from which the truth will never emerge. Hyeon-gyu exists in the same void as the murder victims and the unlawful basement interrogations, all of these episodes from some greater history book which was never written––all products and victims of a confused time and a sinister place.

Amid its futile search for a serial killer, Memories of Murder provides a somewhat abstract retrospective glimpse at the tumultuous societal and political environment of late-1980s South Korea, which proved so consequential in shaping the direction taken by the country. Bong Joon-ho invites the audience to remember a time when even a detective from Seoul had never heard of a serial killing, traditional Korean values had yet to completely lose out to modern American ones, and the country was ruled by a military dictatorship more concerned with suppressing protesters than solving murders. In the first scene of the film, Park Doo-man looks into the gutter, only to find a corpse; in the epilogue, he returns to the site, and this time can see through to the light on the other side of the tunnel. It is as if the events of the film were only a terrible nightmare, and the world has become a much more hopeful place than he remembered. As Klein writes, “as much as the dictatorships of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s repressed the South Korean people, they also engineered tremendous economic growth that transformed South Korea into a modern, industrial society with a strong middle class and a high standard of living” (884). However, his conversation with the little girl reveals that the murderer has likely also returned to visit the spot, reminding the viewer that although the crimes of the past might be forgotten––both the surface and the deep ones––the perpetrators are still out there. The dark truth about the modern world, which Bong would like to impart to his audience, is that justice is a rare commodity, contemporary problems are quite often insoluble, and to some extent, we are all complicit in the crimes of modernization.

Works Cited
Coulter, Gerry. “Visual Story Telling and History as a Great Toy—The Lives of Others.” Wide Screen, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2010.
Klein, Christina. “Why American Studies Needs to Think about Korean Cinema, or, Transnational Genres in the Films of Bong Joon-ho.” American Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 2008, pp. 871–898.
Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder.” Cinema Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, Fall 2011, pp. 75–95.
Jung, Min-kyung. “Cold Cases Unfrozen.” The Korea Herald, 26 May 2017,
Lee, Jiyeon. “Serial Killings Grip South Korea.” Public Radio International, 13 Feb. 2009,

About this entry