/ Korean Films

Korean Crime Films – Modifying and Revitalizing Traditional Crime Genre Elements

Spoiler warnings for the following:

  • Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)
  • Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
  • Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
  • Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
  • The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008)

The emergence of the Korean Wave in the late 1990s led to the major global circulation of South Korean culture. Due to this recent growth in global popularity, film audiences outside of South Korea have shown great interest in modern South Korean films, especially those labeled as crime films. Characterized by dark themes, stylish visuals, and aestheticized violence, modern South Korean crime films have been celebrated by crime genre enthusiasts not only because of the aforementioned characteristics but also because of additional appealing ones. The success and popularity of these films can be attributed to various sources and reasons; out of all of them, generic transformation appears to be a significant factor worth examining. In “Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films,” John G. Cawelti describes generic transformation as the process by which a particular genre is adapted to fulfill artistic creativity or meet the expectations of a changing society. Similar to the way Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) invokes the American popular genre of the hard-boiled detective story, modern South Korean crime films invoke traditional crime genre elements commonly present in American crime films. They modify and revitalize the genre’s codes and conventions.

First, it is important to recognize that there are many difficulties in discussing film genres, especially with pinpointing which genres are subgenres to a particular category. Many have argued that mystery films are subgenres of crime films, yet many others have argued the opposite. In the broadest sense, a crime film generally involves various aspects of crime and the way the film’s story and characters interact with them. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) is one such crime film that chronicles the transformation of Michael Corleone from reluctant family outsider to a cunning and ruthless mafia boss. A mystery film, as film critic Tim Dirks defines it, typically involves a crime but it revolves more around the solution of it. It focuses on the efforts of a detective or an amateur sleuth to find the solution to the crime. With this definition in mind, it would be inappropriate to label The Godfather as a mystery film. A more appropriate example would be John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), which transitions from a story about a private investigator dealing with a missing person case to a story that centers on the bejeweled and priceless falcon statuette. It may be the case that not all crime films are mystery films (or vice versa), so for the sake of avoiding unnecessary debates, this post will generally treat all the subgenres associated with the crime genre as crime films. Subgenre descriptors will be used to generalize the story content in any crime film analyzed here. This post will, of course, also focus more on South Korean crime films and crime subgenres with some form of mystery storytelling in them, like police procedurals and detective-mysteries.

It is apparent that police and detective characters of modern South Korean crime films are extensions of the hard-boiled characters from American cinema. In “Notes on Noir,” Paul Schrader explains that hard-boiled protagonists follow a narcissistic, defeatist code. They generally have the “tough guy,” cynical personalities that either came from or led to the creation of their unredeemable and unheroic attributes. This type of characterization is best exemplified in both Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) through their respective protagonists of Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Al Roberts (Tom Neal). These characters provide voice-over narrations of the events of their respective films that have further solidified their already hard-boiled dispositions. Although Double Indemnity and Detour are not detective-mystery films, they are noir films with hard-boiled characters that provide templates for later detective characters like John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) from Chinatown. Rather than merely copying the character archetype, these films modify the hard-boiled protagonist to meet the expectations of their respective narrative themes. For the case of Chinatown, according to Cawelti’s interpretation, Gittes’ characterization as a reluctant but determined hard-boiled detective is a vehicle for a story about the accidental consequences of actions that are past understanding and control. Similarly, modern South Korean crime films borrow and alter the characteristics of hard-boiled detectives to portray police and detective characters devoid of morality, ethics, and competency.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) demonstrates this particular example of generic transformation. Based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders in recorded history, Memories of Murder takes place in mid-1980s South Korea under a military dictatorship. Rural cop Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) investigate a series of rape-murders in a small Korean town, becoming more desperate with each new corpse they discover. Overwhelmed by the severity of the crimes, Park, with his partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), resort to beating and threatening confessions out of innocent suspects. Although presented as incongruous comedy, the frequency of the abuse leaves the suspects delirious, struggling even to fabricate an acceptable confession. Park’s strong inclination towards abusing innocents also stems from his “tough guy” attitude that many hard-boiled detectives share. It is further encouraged by the corrupt world of South Korean law enforcement of the 1980s. These Korean hard-boiled detectives, even with their cynicism and “tough guy” bravado, are hardly portrayed as charismatic antiheroes. Instead, Bong portrays the majority of the police and detective characters as inept human beings.

Tumbling down a slope to the crime scene,

letting bystanders trample vital evidence,

visiting the local Shaman for a charm that supposedly reveals the killer’s face,

the list of police incompetence goes on. In Memories of Murder, machismo and corruption breed negligence.

Of course, the concept of an incompetent police force has been utilized in crime films of the past. In fact, hard-boiled protagonists of detective-mystery films are often needed for their services because the police are unsuccessful in solving the crime. Modern South Korean crime films have an affinity for portraying the South Korean police as an incompetent, powerless, and corrupt organization, but their protagonists are usually only involved in solving the crime not because they are needed, but because of their respective self-interests.

The Chaser (Na Hong-jin, 2008)

In Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008), Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a former detective turned pimp who is in financial trouble because some of his prostitutes have gone missing. He assumes that they are being sold by a customer, Je Yeong-min (Ha Jung-woo), so he uses his investigative skills to track him down; however, Eom is only doing this not because he is concerned for their well-being, but because the girls need to clear their debts. The audience should expect this as Eom was introduced as a cynical and ostensibly callous pimp who treats his prostitutes poorly. He only becomes emotionally invested once he discovers that Je is a sadistic murderer. In a hard-boiled detective story, the hard-boiled protagonist eventually learns that corrupt state authorities - or rather, underdeveloped and incompetent ones - are the main antagonistic forces and the possible sources of the crime, leaving him to decide what kind of justice can be accomplished and then undertake to see this personalized justice through. Eom develops as a character in a similar fashion as he is constantly confronted by the bureaucratic and incompetent police force. Even at his most selfless moments, the police still manages to delay his progress, hardening his cynicism.

Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)

Bong’s Mother (2009) deals with something similar with its Mother character (Kim Hye-ja). The underlying difference between Mother and the protagonists of other detective-mystery films is that she is not associated with law-enforcement whatsoever (she doesn't know anything about investigating crimes). She is an unnamed widow who lives alone with her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin), selling medicinal herbs in a small Korean town. Despite his mental impairment and proneness to angry bursts upon people calling him "stupid," Mother is fiercely devoted to Do-joon, and it's this bond that keeps their already grueling life away from complete despair. The bond is threatened, however, when a girl is found dead on a rooftop in town. The incompetent local police are pressured into finding the killer, so the police arrest Do-joon because of circumstantial evidence, Do-joon's mental disability, and their keenness on closing the case over following other potential leads. Upon discovering that there wasn't any careful investigation, Mother embarks on her own. Police incompetence has reached the point at which they essentially parody the hard-boiled detective archetype. They’re often seen smoking and throwing verbal jabs at Do-joon in front of colleagues, trying to intimidate suspects and impress the people around them. But their attempts at intimidating Do-joon are ineffective because he doesn’t mentally register them as something intimidating. If one's success at investigating a crime is determined by how close he or she reaches the truth beneath it, then Mother, unfortunately enough, succeeds as an investigator even without proper police training, further highlighting the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the local hard-boiled police.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2002)

Eventually, hard-boiled protagonists become emotionally invested to an incredible degree in the crimes they're trying to solve. Some modern South Korean crime films take this concept as a basis for exploring themes of vengeance and violence, intensifying the emotional investment to an even higher level. In Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho) and Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) are embroiled in cyclic vengeance: two stories - one for each protagonist - in which the characters, as film critic Kim Young-jin best describes it, aren't clearly presented as good or bad people, but only unlucky ones. It's an outwardly simple story that contains outwardly simple content, yet the inwardly emotional wavelengths of the story are not simple. Unfortunate fates are pulled into the psychologically and physically cruel violence of vengeance; however, intense emotions aren't displayed through violent outbursts. Instead, they're gradually accumulated as explosive internal power, a subtle undercurrent of sadness and anguish that are mostly expressed through elaborate linkages of wordless gazes and strong gestures. There's a placid rhythm to this accumulation in which this violent tension will explode at any moment. And as they continue investigating, finding, and confronting the people who've wronged them, both Park and Ryu develop a cynical worldview in which nothing but vengeance matters, consciously ignoring the consequences of achieving it. Their personal and violent struggles for vengeance are analogous to Gittes' confrontation with a depth of depravity beyond the capacity of the hard-boiled ethos of individualistic justice - there are no heroic confrontations or triumphs of justice in these films. Chinatown’s villain is free to continue his aggressive depredation on everything and everyone in Los Angeles; his daughter-granddaughter can never escape his influence. Park and Ryu, as director Park Chan-wook described it, slowly become the monsters that caused their suffering as they try to complete their quest for vengeance. All of their stories end with a tragic catastrophe and the destruction of the innocent. All of the protagonists end up defeated.

To enhance the cinematic storytelling of their crime-mystery narratives, Korean filmmakers embrace noir iconography. Rain especially has a ubiquitous presence. Schrader asserts that noir films seem to have an almost Freudian attachment to water as the empty Los Angeles streets are almost always glistening with fresh evening rain. Furthermore, rain visually signifies drama - rainfall tends to increase in direct proportion to the unfolding drama. Even modern American noir films like David Fincher’s Seven (1995) and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) use rain in this manner. When a kneeling David Mills (Brad Pitt) is at the mercy of the killer’s gun pointing down to his head or when Officer K (Ryan Gosling) slowly hugs his holographic girlfriend on the rooftop, rain pours down on them, magnifying their emotions. Modern South Korean crime films also use rain for that purpose while expanding it to fulfill the role of a ticking clock. In Memories of Murder, rain is treated as that narrative device so that the detectives are given urgency to solve the crime within a certain timeframe. The audience knows that there will be another murder with the information gathered throughout the film: when it rains, the killer will strike again.

Can you find the killer?

Thus, a timeframe is established for the detectives, generating suspense because another murder is inevitable.

Rain, along with its associated murders, also leaves a lasting effect on the film's visuals and the environments on-screen. Memories of Murder begins with warm imagery: golden autumnal colors beneath a glaringly blue sky of paddy fields.

Minutes after detective Park discovers the body of a brutally murdered woman, the opening sequence ends. The film then adopts a greyish, cloudy look.

And as the rain and murders continue, the film removes the fragments of tenderness the images once had.

It is only at the end of the story where the film returns to the same fields with the same warm imagery.

But the rain and murders have destroyed the town; even though everything appears to be back to normal, things will not return to how they once were.

The Chaser does something similar: rain pours down some time after Je successfully kills someone. At the beginning of the film, when he and the prostitute walk away from the car, the scene dissolves to a shot of the same alleyway in heavy rain.

The world of The Chaser is then presented as a city of rain-slicked streets and buildings, but once Je kidnaps Kim Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), there is a notable absence of rain, up until half an hour or so after he kills an elderly couple.

The elderly couple was killed off-screen.

And then the days get brighter as the film progresses, making Eom profusely sweat as he frantically searches for clues on Kim’s whereabouts.

The brighter the day gets, the more exhausted he appears; by showing this change in weather, the film visually reflects Eom’s distress. It's fitting that rain pours down once more after Je Yeong-min mercilessly beats Mi-jin to death in the infamous hammer scene.

The disappearances of Jung-ho's prostitutes are, from the perspective of state authorities, momentary disturbances. And once those disturbances end, the universe of The Chaser returns to its rainy nights, reaffirming the film's thesis that the city, along with its incompetent state authorities, will continue to move on even without the people they leave behind.

Lastly, modern South Korean crime films use elements of noir lighting to dramatize key story events. Noir films, according to Schrader, typically emphasize shadows, and the harsh lighting creates a sense of volume and depth that embodies the style and themes of film noir. Silhouetted figures, a staple of film noir, are common in modern South Korean crime films as they heighten the somber tones of their stories.

In Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), the lighting is a major source of its dark and gritty world. City alleyways swallowed by shadows, silhouettes brought out by darkness, Oldboy reincorporates noir lighting to reinforce its dark story. As Oh reaches closer to the truth behind his imprisonment, the lighting becomes more prominent. But it doesn’t simply invoke the lighting style of film noir. On numerous occasions, it gives the film’s characters a theatrical presence. To better understand this, it’s worth pointing out that much of Oldboy’s theatrics come from the Greek and Shakespearian tragedies that inspired the film. The name “Oh Dae-su” resembles the name “Oedipus” to remind the audience of Oedipus the King. With this in mind, the theatrical lighting becomes far more noticeable, which is best exemplified at the end of the film where Oh undergoes hypnosis once more.

Here, a single light source right above Oh illuminates his body while everything around him is engulfed in darkness.

Oldboy, with the aid of careful noir lighting, transforms a Greek tragedy into a cinematic story with a theatrical/operatic quality.

Another example happens during Memories of Murder’s climax.

Before discussing the climax's lighting, keep in mind that Memories of Murder is based on the unsolved Hwaseong serial murders. It's peculiar that the film is titled "Memories of Murder" because only the memories of the killer and his victims are real. And because most, if not all of the victims are no longer alive, the only memories people can rely on are those of the killer's. No matter how many journalists, detectives, or even ordinary people investigate the murders, they can only recreate what they think are these memories without ever constructing them with the authentic memories of its victims. One of Bong's directorial strategies is to reproduce this true story from a different yet creative angle: maintain a narrative that both firmly adheres to the facts of the events and operates in an allegorical space prone to tonal shifts.

Bong is a storyteller who is rather unapologetic with the constantly changing tones in all of his films. He refuses to maintain a singular tone because real life doesn't operate on just one; instead, it has multiple. Many people have come across situations in which things get inexplicably funny despite their circumstances suggesting that they aren't, something akin to bursting into laughter during a funeral. This principle of spontaneous laughter applies to Bong's films. He also believes any attempts at maintaining a singular tone is artificial, as it forces story events to play out within a specific mood, leaving no room to allow any tonal changes. So, by constantly shifting from one tone to the next, he's injecting his films with pulsating energy that oddly enough makes his films feel more organic, more alive. He breathes life into his films. This is why we see a lot of "day-to-day" happenings along with the investigations: to complement the everyday ambiance of the film's setting.

The most notable examples of Bong's signature tonal shifts are the many scenes of police brutality. Despite witnessing the police harassing, torturing, and kicking innocent suspects, these scenes are never portrayed in a singular tone.

What Bong is illustrating is the day-to-day nature of police brutality in 1980s South Korea. Bong argues that this was the reality. And by revealing this reality, viewers can understand every failure on-screen based on their own experiences from their reality. This combination of factual and allegorical storytelling carefully places viewers from a perspective that encourages them to be both observational and empathic. They can carefully examine the modernization of Korean society and the incompetence of state authorities. They can also empathize with the victims along with the people who have failed both in preventing the murders and by letting their stubbornness and pride get the better of them.

All of this is the thematic motivation behind the climax's noir lighting. Back in the first scene, viewers are shown the body of a woman dumped in a drain pipe beside the paddy levee. The main visual interest is, of course, the decomposing body. But what's interesting about these shots is what's inside the drain pipe.

The images are repeated in the climax in which detective Seo viciously beats the prime suspect, Park Hyeon-gyu (Park Hae-il), in front of a train tunnel, inside of which is completely concealed in darkness.

But shortly after, detective Park arrives with the American documents revealing the fact that the suspect isn't the killer. Hyeon-gyu barely escapes into the tunnel, away from detectives Park and Seo. The scene ends with a long shot inside, showing the silhouettes of the defeated detectives standing by the exit.

These striking, alternating images of the suspect disappearing into a dark tunnel - to some place beyond of unknowable form - and the silhouettes of the detectives in agonizing frustration convey the unsolved fate of the murders and the police’s failure in their pursuit of justice. The climax is a memory of absolute failure, but the film as a whole is a collection of memories that Bong wishes to preserve as filmic memories - ones that reveal the facts of the events and an allegory of one of the most tumultuous decades of recent Korean history. It's a historical trauma that may be too painful for many to confront, but it's necessary to preserve these incomplete, vanishing memories of recent history so that we can learn from these failures.

Generic transformation enabled modern South Korean crime films to modify and revitalize traditional crime elements of American cinema. By borrowing the hard-boiled detective archetype and noir iconography, modern South Korean filmmakers created crime films characterized by the aforementioned dark themes, stylish visuals, and aestheticized violence. To borrow something means to return something else of equal or acceptable value. In this case, modern South Korean cinema supplies uniquely Korean crime films that not only appealed to the sensibilities of South Korean audiences but also the sensibilities of those outside of the country. They modified and revitalized crime genre elements to meet the expectations made in their uniquely Korean stories.

Sources and Recommended Supplements:

  • John G. Cawelti – Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films
  • Jung Ji-you – Korean Film Directors: Bong Joon-ho
  • Kim Young-jin – Korean Film Directors: Park Chan-wook
  • Paul Schrader – Notes on Film Noir
  • Tim Dirks – Detective-Mystery Films (http://www.filmsite.org/mysteryfilms.html)