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Realistic, Like in a Movie: On Facts, Procedurals and Memories of Murders

Salinui chueok (Joon-ho Bong, 2003)


“Be realistic, like in a movie,” says detective Park Doo-man to a wrongfully accused man in Bong Joon-ho’s serial killer thriller Memories of Murder (KR, 2003). The line is featured in a scene in which the rural Korean police are heavy-handedly interrogating a suspect and forcing him to confess to a crime he did not commit. The immediate reaction to this line would be to acknowledge the twofold irony of that phrase: to laugh at the situation of a man being told by the police to spontaneously incriminate himself and to laugh at the absurd notion that movies are anything like real life. It seems logical that this is the kind of response Bong was aiming for when including it in the film, as he has a knack for balancing heavy story material and dramatic scenes with a comical tone that never seems out of place, no matter how outrageous the joke is. A particularly extreme case of Bong’s wizardry with tone occurs when Park Doo-man refuses to follow hot leads and focuses on his intuition instead. His theory is that the killer never leaves any traces of pubic hairs after molesting the victims and must therefore be totally clean-shaven. After he gets a good scolding from his boss for coming up with such a preposterous idea, he decides to follow up on this lead by himself. Bong then cuts to a sequence of shots of the policeman staking out the public baths. However, one should not take these jokes merely as ironic comments on the film itself and suppose that Memories of Murder is unrealistic and that Bong is trying to make excuses for it by appealing to the audience’s sense of humour. Although the film meanders along a very fine line between any kind of realism and comical hyperbole, Memories of Murder very rarely deviates from its police procedural plot and uses all the steps in the investigative process as dramaturgical tools. Bong, who spent six month doing research on the actual case – just about the same amount of time it took to actually write the screenplay – is very strict in his adherence to the facts. For example, early on in the investigation, local detective Park is joined by Seo Tae-yoon, a smart city cop from Seoul who strongly disagrees with the local investigation tactics. Such a set-up would seem to indicate the beginning of an enjoyable buddy cop movie somewhere along the lines of Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (US, 1987) or Walter Hill’s Red Heat (US, 1988). However, it does not turn out that way. For Bong the facts, the follow-ups and the frustrations as a result of working the case form the realist impulse which propels the movie forward – just like they would an actual police investigation – and not necessarily the personal relationships between individual characters. As such, Memories of Murder ought to be considered as part of a cinematic tradition of police procedurals, which takes the investigation and its social backdrop at least as seriously as it does matters of character and story. In order to arrive at an adequate description of the problem of genre and realism in Memories of Murder, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at the tradition of the procedural throughout film history.

A solid starting point for the genre description would be Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Fantômas (FR, 1913-14). The grandpappy of all procedurals (and a masterpiece), Fantômas closely follows the actions of the eponymous criminal mastermind and, in equal measure, the attempts by inspector Juve to arrest him. Juve works closely with the local reporter Fandor, who proves to be quite the sleuth, too. Episode after episode, Juve and Fandor chase after Fantômas but unfortunately he slips right through their fingers at the last minute; the narrative structures of the individual episodes are all variations on this simple set-up. The elaborate schemes concocted by Fantômas may seem totally unrealistic or at least too ambitious for a real life, ordinary crook to embark upon. The same goes for Juve, who seems to have a superhuman ability to track down Fantômas and be in the right place and the right time to catch him. As in a pulp novel, both characters are presented as larger than life figures that embody the perfection of their respective fields. In the opening credits of the second episode, Juve contre Fantômas,Feuillade makes the likenesses between both characters even more explicit. After a title card introducing Mr. René Navarre as Fantômas, Feuillade cuts to a series of shots with Fantômas in different costumes. He then shows a title card introducing Mr. Edmund Bréon as Juve and cuts to series of shots matching the previous ones, only with Juve in different disguises. Feuillade points out that both men are masters of disguises and that, in a way, these men are cut from the same cloth. One might even take it a step further and take this as an indication that Fantômas and Juve could be one and the same. This, however, is highly unlikely given that the one is lean and skinny, the other quite corpulent. But, in a thrilling serial like Fantômas, anything is possible. And if we are indeed dealing with a show in which anything is possible – murderous corpses and that sort of thing – and nothing inconceivable; where, then, can we find the realism? The answer is simple: all over the place and all of the time. In Fantômas, Feuillade has three different angles – crime, police and journalism – which he can use to explore French society and catch glimpses of everyday life as it went about its way in early 20th century France. Fantômas, the high-class thief that he is, is very concerned with the extravagant riches of the bourgeoisie, which are there for the plucking. As he sneaks into rich ladies’ rooms at night to do said plucking, so does the camera show us, in quite some detail, what the living conditions were for the Parisian high society and how the extravagant old wealth is threatened by forces out of their control. The shadowy villain does not limit his habitat to the upper circles of society. His crimes take us all over the city as he presents us with an entire criminal underbelly populated by petty thugs and corrupt rich people. Ever on Fantômas’ trail, Juve and Fandor cover much of the same ground. The traces left behind by their enemy lead them closer and closer to the mark, as it would in any procedural worth its salt. The third episode, La mort qui tue, shows some of the earliest representations of fingerprint identification in film. But for many viewers it is more interesting to see how they are directed towards locations spread out over the city that are worth examining in detail. There is a strong naturalistic aesthetic in many of the exterior scenes where Feuillade’s camera, in an almost documentary fashion, seems more interested in the look of the streets’ cobblestones, the general attire of the passers-by, the architecture above and below ground, and the streetcars winding through the urban landscape. All these scenes conserve bits and pieces of reality, of real life as it was lived at the time when this wonderful serial was shot. These bits and pieces are all facts, documents, things that are true. They constitute the realist strand of Fantômas and essential to the cinematic tradition of the procedural.

This take it to the streets-aesthetic is most familiar from film serials such as Fantômas, but there are many other silent greats that have used this same aesthetic to add a touch of realism to their films. The naturalism of F.W. Murnau’s films owes much to this approach, such as the exteriors in Nosferatu (DE, 1922) or Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (DE, 1924) where Murnau filmed the streets and buildings of cities and villages in Germany, Slovakia and Croatia. More relevant to the topic at hand are some films by Murnau’s contemporary and fellow master of the silent film, Fritz Lang. Although in his silent period Lang is perhaps best known for his dystopian science fiction classic Metropolis (DE, 1927), his magnificent two-part epic Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (DE, 1922) is more suitable for discussion here. Much like Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas, Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse is a criminal genius. He is a master thief, a counterfeiter, an escape artist, a cheating gambler, an evil hypnotist, a kidnapper and an identity thief. Like with Fantômas, the extensive running time allows for the director to stage in great detail all the separate crimes, every step of the way. Parallel with the scams and schemes run the police’s efforts to catch up with Dr. Mabuse as he incessantly wreaks havoc in Weimar era Germany. Although Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is not exactly a procedural, it is similar to Fantômas in its counterintuitive harmony of pulp fiction and realism. For the real deal, however, we must jump ahead almost ten years to Fritz Lang’s first sound feature M (DE, 1931), arguably the greatest manhunt movie of all time. In Fritz Lang’s film, everyone is in on the hunt: the police, the newspapers, the criminal underworld and many a concerned citizen. A fine example of a strict procedural, M follows the search for the serial killer with great precision and a keen eye for detail, showing us with an acute operational aesthetic exactly how the investigation is being conducted as it is happening. Every single undertaking in the investigation is revealed to us, so that the audience is entirely up to date at all times and is totally informed as to the progress made by all factions. What makes M so much more interesting than many of its predecessors and followers is the awesome scope of Lang’s direction. As M zooms in on every little detail of the operations of both the police and the criminals, Lang never loses track of larger issues at hand. He often takes a break from the objective operational goings-on of the manhunt and makes room for addressing societal and moral issues with bitter cynicism. At the same time as the police decide upon a right course of action and stage raids at bars and clubs criminals are known to frequent, the underworld bosses start losing business and decide to participate in the manhunt and conduct a search of their own. Both investigations clash towards the end of the film and the question is asked how the murderer should be brought to justice.

As Fritz Lang was commenting on Weimar society and entertaining his viewers en masse with his wonderful films M and Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (DE, 1933) , the second instalment of the Dr. Mabuse-series, American audiences were treated to some equally wonderful crime films made in Hollywood. During and in the wake of the Great Depression, the gangster film flourished. It should be pointed out that these American films were often told from the point of view of a criminal. Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (US, 1931), William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (US, 1931) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (US, 1932) all depict an individual gangster’s rise to fame. It seems that in the thirties, the cops really were outnumbered, as it was told in Charles Brabin’s magnificent Beast of the City (US, 1932). This film, starring Walter Huston, was perhaps the only cop movie tough enough to stand up against the likes of Rico, Tom Powers and Tony Camonte. Though these are all top notch cops and criminals movies, it would take a while before the procedural found its way into American cinema, and for the police force to strike back at the gangsters who had been gnawing at their thighs for decades. In the film noir landscape of the ‘40s and ‘50s, procedurals became more and more common. One of the first films to depict the linear progress of a police investigation with something resembling an operational aesthetic like Lang’s in M is Fred Zinnemann’s Kid Glove Killer (US, 1942). This wonderful little B-list cheapie is a film upon which the terrible injustice has been done of being overlooked, neglected and underrated over the years. Ain’t nobody’s blues but my own. Kid Glove Killer is in fact a perfectly decent procedural featuring a chemist in the local crime labinvestigating the murder of a newly elected mayor. As he works his way through the various clues left behind at the scene of the crime, the movie moves towards its conclusion and the capture of the killer. What makes this movie interesting, aside from its undeniable Hollywood charm, is the character’s insistence on facts; a thorough examination of all the leads and an elimination of all doubts is the only way to certainty. As good a procedural as Kid Glove Killer is, it is hardly a film that allows real life to enter into the picture. This would happen later, when a documentary edge or the take it to the streets-approach became an option.

One of the darkest and grittiest noirs of them all, Anthony Mann’s T-Men (US, 1947), is a great example of a docu-noir procedural. This Poverty Row production was one of the first instances of neorealist filmmaking as a stylistic device to enter Hollywood sensibilities. The film is introduced by a former head of the Treasury Department, who speaks about money counterfeiting rackets and the importance of eliminating such criminal activity by the Treasury Department agents. Two such agents, the T-Men of the title – obviously an allusion to the term “G-Man” or Government man, popularised by the arrest of real life American gangster Machine Gun Kelly who allegedly shouted out “Don’t shoot, G-Men!” to his pursuers – go undercover and infiltrate a mob of counterfeiters. The real heroes in this film, however, are director Anthony Mann and his cameraman, John Alton. More so than the film’s introduction and the extradiegetic narrator, it is the camera work that instils the strongest sense of realism in the picture. The great many exteriors and location shoots, often done at night with some great shadow-play by Alton, give T-Men the raw edge that places it so high in the list of procedurals. After T-Men, more and more directors started taking to the streets to achieve a similar documentary feel, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (US, 1948) being the most successful at achieving this goal. Being such a fertile period for crime films, America’s film noir era has many more interesting procedurals in its arsenal. It seems unfair to continue without mention of the great Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (US, 1949). Though it is primarily a caper film, the police investigation forms quite an important part of the film as it leads to one of cinema’s greatest deaths. Seriously, who can forget that triangulation technique used by the P.D.? Aside from solid good police work as in William Wyler’s Detective Story (US, 1951), André De Toth’s Crime Wave (US, 1954) or Jack Webb’s Dragnet (US, 1954) – “Straight from police files: the never-told crackdown the red-spot criminals!”, read the taglines – which was based on a popular radio and TV show of the same name, the film noir period was also responsible for re-establishing the importance of journalism in the minds of moviegoers and as a perfect companion to the police procedural. Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (US, 1950) tells the story of a cynical, opportunistic newspaper editor who helps defend a poor girl’s innocence to boost his ratings only to discover that he is inadvertently solving the actual murder case. However, there is no newspaper man quite as cynical and opportunistic as Kirk Douglas’s character in in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (US, 1951), who exploits the situation of a man stuck in a cave in order to stage a media circus around the event and rise to fame in the process.

As the studio system ended and made way for the new American cinema of the ‘70s, films underwent a serious transformation. Many filmmakers wished to capture the banalities of everyday life as perceived by its characters. For the procedural, this meant a serious overhaul of dramatic tone and along with it came another kind of realism. Whenever a specific criminal case is interesting enough to merit a movie being made about it, it is highly unlikely that the investigations run smoothly or that the investigators lead a normal, happy life. In the procedurals of the new American cinema, life is tougher and it often catches up with the case at hand, making things even more complicated. Added to that, the operational aesthetic that is so essential for the procedural is tweaked to serve as a stylistic device and address that same element of banal realism. As the investigative process is documented piece by piece, the characters inevitably experience setbacks along the way – bureaucratic intervention, issues of jurisdiction, faulty technologies, false leads, human errors and the like – that cause a great deal of frustration. William Friedkin was one of the first directors to successfully blend the old streetwise docu-noir realism of the classical era with the gritty realism of frustration and banality in The French Connection (US, 1971), one of the greatest cop movies of the ‘70s. A year later, Sidney Lumet attempted to achieve similar effect in his own version of a police procedural. The Offence (US/UK, 1972) tells the story of a veteran policeman who can no longer handle the pressure after many years of confrontations with criminals, sociopaths and married life. During an intense interrogation with a suspected paedophile, he snaps and goes crazy. Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (US, 1976) is perhaps the best example of the reporters’ procedural. It may not be quite as dark and paranoid as his earlier films, Klute (US, 1971) and The Parallax View (US, 1974), but its strict adherence to the case at hand is extraordinary. What is even more remarkable is the obvious fact that everybody knows the outcome of the reporters’ investigations into the Watergate scandal. Pakula’s remarkable triumph was, through tight direction of the whole investigation, getting the audiences to continuously ask themselves the question “How did they do it?” rather than “How is this film going to end?” One might argue that Pakula lucked out that his villain in the movie, the Committee to Re-elect the President, had the convenient acronym “CREEP”. For those who need more convincing, the fact-based screenplay, the reliance on research and reason and an occasional encounter with Deep Throat in a dimly lit parking lot – a cinematographic tour de force by Gordon Willis – ought to do the trick. The fact-based procedural dramaturgy of All the President’s Men has an impact which still can be felt today, especially after such amazing how did they do it films as David Fincher’s The Social Network (US, 2010) and, even more recently, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (US, 2012).

After the freedoms of the new American cinema ended, the American police procedural film got itself into the worst fix since the invention of the medium. The 1980s… yes, it affects us all. About a dozen buddy cop movies started popping up: a tradition kick-started by Japanese genius Akira Kurosawa with Stray Dog (JP, 1949), neglected for over 30 years and then revived in comical form by talented action movie director Walter Hill with 48 Hrs. (US, 1982). Films like 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon and their respective sequels made it through the decade and into the next. Some of these are actually very enjoyable action films, but they are hardly as interesting as any of their predecessors, and it would take a while for the genre to recover from this heavy blow. So, as it goes, American cop movies suffered for a while and had to look at works of genius being made in other countries. As far generic thrills are concerned, the Asian connection was the way to go for procedurals. The Honk Kong film industry was thriving with police films at this time. Jackie Chan proved himself a great director of action movies: he applied his ingenious skills as a martial artist and fight choreographer to create elaborate set pieces in his movies. Some of these stunts, like the bicycle chase scene in Project A (HK, 1983) and the shantytown sequence in Police Story (HK, 1985), are impressive and funny enough to rival the works of Buster Keaton. John Woo’s flamboyant action thrillers such as A Better Tomorrow (HK, 1986) and Hard Boiled (HK, 1992) also proved themselves worthy of the world’s attention and turned Chow Yun-Fat into an internationally known superstar. Aside from Chow’s charisma and Woo’s talent for directing action scenes, the films suffer somewhat in the moments between the shootouts. John Woo’s heir apparent, Johnnie To, more than made up for that by applying the piece-by-piece operational aesthetic to his films, especially the procedurals. In PTU (HK, 2003), Mad Detective (HK, 2007) and Drug War (HK/CN, 2012) he demonstrated his ability to maintain focus over the entire investigation, with the shootouts being just one of the main elements in the overall choreography, as opposed to a mere attraction isolated from the rest of the film’s narrative. To depart from the Hong Kong genre cinema and resume the contact between police procedural and a sense of realism, it seems appropriate to go all out and consider Maurice Pialat’s unique take on the procedural with Police (FR, 1985). This amazing clash of the generic French policier and the visceral social realism of Pialat’s previous films such as La geule ouverte (FR, 1974) and Passe ton Bac d’abord… (FR, 1978) offers some of the same thrills as the grittier American procedurals of the ‘70s. In this case, however, the police story is completely subservient to the bitter, realist impulse, which directs all the social interactions between its characters. The clash between the two genres or styles – procedural and social realism – is so extreme in Police that the film has very few followers. There are, however, some recent examples of procedurals that have a realist strand strong enough to loom over the actual investigation. Part of the recent flourishing of Romanian cinema, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Politist, adjectiv (RO, 2009) is more about the dreary life of a policemen Romania than anything else. Finally, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s existential procedural Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (TR, 2011) plays like an encounter between Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (RU, 1979) and Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (US, 2007), making it a fine addition to the line of interesting genre-benders.

Where, then, should one place Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder? My answer would be: everywhere. Almost every single feature of the procedural throughout film history left its traces in that film. The long, never-ending search for the identity of a master criminal, the naturalistic documentary style due to location shoots, the operational aesthetic to emphasise the on-going procedures, the policeman’s marital issues as a consequence of too much police work, the frustrations at work due to dead-end leads and human error, the sense of camaraderie instilled by the buddy cop format, the well-staged moments of slapstick humour, the great cinematography and airtight screenplay are all present in Memories of Murder. There is even a scene where the characters are watching a Korean version of the 1950s show Dragnet (NBC, US, 1951-1959). After having gone through many different stages in the development of the procedural, I am left to conclude that Memories of Murder is most suitably approached as a résumé of the different genres, tropes and styles that have crossed the path of the procedural since its inception. As such, Bong’scan be considered as one of cinema’s most successful love letters. It feels like Memories of Murder is his State of the Union, his way of saying to the world where the procedural is at and asking for someone to come along and make a movie that will further the evolution of the genre, as he is clearly very attached to it. David Fincher’s Zodiac (US, 2007) shows a great number of similarities with Memories of Murder. Most obvious is that the events depicted therein are based on real life homicide cases which remained unsolved. Since the killers were never caught, Bong and Fincher had the wonderful opportunity to focus on the numerous obstructions with which the detectives are faced. Incompetence runs rampant from the very beginning of Memories of Murder as a crime scene is trampled over by civilians before the forensics team arrives, immediately eliminating some important clues. The local detectives try to make up for this initial setback by falsifying evidence, which results in them arresting the wrong man. As a result, the police experience a certain amount humiliation from the press, and have to start from scratch. The murders continue, and the police continue to be baffled as they only have circumstantial evidence and rely on conjecture to proceed with their investigation. In Zodiac, the delays in the investigation are perhaps not due to the same kind of incompetence, but rather to jurisdictional barriers and flawed communication between all the people involved. However, the scope of Fincher’s direction is much larger in Zodiac; he elaborates on the procedural plot by incorporating local reporters in the investigation, which makes matters even more complicated as all the facts need to be reviewed over and over, making it almost impossible for anyone to make heads or tails of the whole case. In either film, the frustrations among the various investigators lead to heated conflicts and an increased confusion as to where the search is heading. Another key element which both films have in common is the confrontation between the investigators and the actual killer – or, at least, the man whom they think is the killer – and the circumstantial evidence not being enough to convict. In both films, the culprit was in the hands of the police and was let go; one can only imagine the annoyance they must have felt at this sad fact. Another interesting point where the two films seem to converge is when one of the detectives asks a child who has seen the killer for a description. In both Memories of Murder and Zodiac, the kid simply answers that the person in question looked “normal” or “ordinary”. All these similarities point to the idea that Bong’s and Fincher’s films should be considered as companion pieces. And there is something resembling proof, too. In BFI’s Sight and Sound poll of last year, Bong submitted a personal Top 10 for consideration in the 2012 Best Directors list.British Film Institute. (2012). Bong Joon-ho. The Greatest Films Poll. Retrieved October 1, 2013, from Three of these films were procedurals from before Memories of Murder: Orson Welles’ noir classic Touch of Evil (US, 1958), the Coen brothers’ freak roadside incidental Fargo (US, 1995), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s unsettling philosophy-trip Cure (JP, 1998). This hints at his love for the genre before he made his own. The fourth procedural on the list all but confirms the suspicion that Memories of Murder is not only a memorial for past procedurals, but also a kind request for a new film to be made that will push all the buttons of a true fan of the genre. For Bong that masterpiece has come, and it should come as no surprise that it is indeed David Fincher’s Zodiac.