Greetings again from the darkness. Between 1986 and 1991, 10 women were raped and brutally murdered in the province of Gyeong-gi outside Seoul. Considered South Korea’s first serial killer case, the crime went unsolved until 2019. The case was the inspiration for writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s second feature film, as was Kwang-rim Kim’s play, “Come to See Me”. Director Bong Joon Ho co-wrote the screenplay with Sung-bo Shim, and of course, went on to win an Oscar for PARASITE (2019), in addition to providing other popular features such as OKJA (2017), SNOWPIERCER (2013), and THE HOST (2006). This early film can be compared to David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), although this one is a blend of murder mystery, crime thriller, black comedy, and political commentary.
Kang-ho Song (PARASITE) stars as Park, a local detective called to the scene of the first victim. Almost immediately we can tell Park and the police force are borderline incompetent. Park is convinced he has “Shaman eyes” and can identify the guilty party simply by looking at them. Of course, this is ridiculous and is proven so on a few occasions. Park’s partner, Detective Cho (Roe-ha Kim), is a hothead who takes a heavy-handed approach to interrogation (though he later experiences true karma). When a second victim is discovered, a more seasoned professional, Detective Seo (Sang Kyung-Kim), arrives from Seoul. In contrast to Park’s gut-feeling approach, Seo puts faith in evidence, proclaiming, “Documents never lie”. These two detectives are at the core of the story and we watch as each evolves.
The film begins on October 23, 1986 as the body of the first victim is found. We witness how the crime scene is immediately corrupted by both cops and local kids. This is also our indoctrination to how the filmmaker is treating this much differently than most crime dramas. A stream of suspects Park refers to as “punks” are paraded through the station, but true chaos ensues at the scene of the second body. We can’t help but be relieved when a professional, big city detective arrives. Bits of evidence are slowly assembled – red clothes, rainy nights, a song on the radio – each may play a role in the actions of the killer. Frustration builds as more murders occur and the detectives are unable to pin down the perpetrator.
The mental and physical toll that detectives endure with such a case are on full display. The obsession with finding the murderer never ends and the fantastic ending proves that even a career change doesn’t erase the failure. We are inundated with crime thrillers these days, but it’s difficult to grasp how this masterpiece was put together by a director whose career was just getting started. Certainly today we recognize the brilliance of Bong Joon Ho, but this was 17 years ago! It plays as a time capsule of South Korea socially and politically in 1986, and it works on that level every bit as much as a crime thriller. Cinematographer Hyung Koo Kim (THE HOST) balances the crime scenes with the police station, as well as the telling facial expressions of the characters. Last year’s solving of these horrific crimes pushed this classic into release, and it’s well worth a watch.