I had bought a £30 student accreditation pass for the BFI’s London Film Festival a few weeks ago. I had bought it on a whim hoping to be able to see David Fincher give his talk. I’m still waiting on spare tickets to that event at this point. But, with pass in hand, I had access to a vast number of films screened especially for press, industry, and student delegates.
Most of the screenings took place at the Picturehouse Central in Piccadilly Circus; I’ve already proclaimed my love for it once before on this space. On the festival’s first Sunday, I had made it just in time before the first film I really wanted to see. With the Student Delegate passes, we can watch any film we want on the Press & Industry Screening schedule, so long as we get there 20-15 minutes earlier, and there are still seats available. I’ve been really lucky to have made it to nearly all of the ones I wanted to see. Even if it was ridiculously last minute.
image credit to showbox and w.pictures
Dir. Won Shin-yun
Starring Sol Kyung-Gu, Kim Seol-hyun, Kim Nam-gil.
This was one of the films I desperately wanted to see. It’s always wonderful seeing Asian cinema prosper all across the globe, and with Korean cinema on the rise, Memoir of a Murderer certainly did not disappoint.
A quick overview: the film is, in every sense of the phrase, the memoir of a murderer. It tells the story of Kim Byung-Soo, a veterinarian and retired serial killer with Alzheimer’s. We’re taken into his past, how he used to kill only with his bare hands, and only those who he deemed deserved to die. One day, Byung-Soo gets into a car accident which leaves him with irreparable brain damage, leading to his dementia. He often wakes up in the same bamboo forest without any idea of how to get home. The rest of the film deals with how his memories affect his relationship with his daughter, and his ability to protect her from an active serial killer that he provoked when they collided in a roadside accident.
First of all, I love stories like this. I don’t know why I’ve always been so drawn into these kinds of thrillers. Second of all, Memoir of a Murderer is perhaps the best display of the unreliable narrator and non-linear storytelling in the last ten years. I mean, Arrival still takes the cake for me when it comes to non-linear storytelling structures, but there was something about this film that made me completely unbearable to talk to. I couldn’t stop talking about this film after I had seen it. It’s like Memento but without the colours coming and going, and a lot more mistrust of your main protagonist. If you can even consider him a protagonist. (Sidenote for a discussion at a later date: Protagonists don’t have to be inherently or morally good, right?)
The film is structured in a way in which we’re discovering new pieces of information along with Byung-Soo and reflects how much the disease affects him. There are devices set in place where this information comes from, like his journal entries on his laptop or the digital recorder his daughter Eun-hee gave to him. Big chunks of time disappear and more and more of his memory becomes untrustworthy. Byung-Soo also began to trust himself less and less. It also gave room for the antagonist to take advantage of his main opponent’s state of mind. For example, Min Tae-Joo, the other serial killer and main bad guy, uses the journals against our protagonist, and masquerades as different members of the community when Byung-Soo is in his delusional state. This was fun for me as an audience member because you’re rendered neutral by default; you can’t trust either side.
What was interesting as well was how the film seamlessly blended sequence after sequence of high tension with moments of levity to break it up. One of my favourite parts of the film is where Byung-Soo follows Eun-hee on her date to the movies with her new boyfriend, who (SPOILER) is actually the current serial killer. His dementia is beginning to creep up on him, and once in the theater he actually forgets how he got there in the first place, proceeding to enjoy the film, laugh, cry, even steal other people’s popcorn. By the time the film finishes, his daughter phones him to let him know that she has already arrived home. And then the film’s tension builds back up again. At one point in the film, Byung-Soo drinks and pees into the same bottle, and then forgetting he had peed in the bottle and drank his own piss. This earned a small chuckle from the audience, but reminds us of the different ways in which Alzheimer’s affects the character. There was also a recurring gag involving a woman from Byung-Soo’s poetry class desperately trying to date him. Needless to say, things didn’t end very well for her.
Also, I thought it was quite funny how the main antagonist spend his last scenes in the film looking like a complete and utter hypebeast whilst still playing the police officer-serial killer duality. It’s not everyday you see a policeman decked out in some lizard scale-patterned sweatshirt and Hood by Air sweatpants. Yep, (SPOILER AGAIN) the serial killer is a cop.
This film is very violent and very graphic. There’s a lot of blood and a lot of dead bodies, so here’s the fair warning for all ye faint of stomach. Though I did massively enjoy the film, I had a little bit of a problem with the amount of violence displayed towards women, and the victimization of women. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, grasping as straws. Or perhaps I really don’t like seeing Seolhyun from AOA get put in grave danger, but this portrayal and treatment of women in film is a recurring nightmare across all genres and film origins. The film I saw right after Memoir was one about the life of a comedian and her journey overcoming abuse. There was a lot of mistreatment of women on screen. I had spoken to a friend who saw four different films entirely at the same festival, and she said she noticed the same thing. I hope modern cinema, especially Asian cinema, throws out this victim complex in their female characters completely. That being said, I think it was the writers, director’s and actress’ choice to portray Kim Eun-hee the way they did, to justify the toll her father’s condition and his actions has done on her and how much she wants to be her own woman by trying to have a life outside of his.
There was a part towards the end where the villain reveals his backstory in a monologue that both did it and ruined the film a little bit for me. But the fight sequence and even more revelations after that definitely sealed the deal. In a good way.
There’s something about anti-heroes that really draw me into a story. Perhaps you can’t classify Byung-Soo as an anti-hero entirely. I think he definitely possesses some qualities that allow you to root for him, feel sympathy for him, and understand him, but there’s a boundary within his violence that reminds us not to do any of those things I just listed.
The score was bonkers. I hadn’t been this glued to the edge of my seat in a good while. (About a month, really, but a month is still a long time.)
Overall, I really enjoyed the film. It had me both heavily invested in its story and characters, but also left me with a couple of nightmares here and there. That’s the mark of a good thriller. For me, at least.
Reflecting on writing this post:
Big up for getting it done in the time that you did. This was written and finished in the same day. I think you’re getting complacent with the amount of things you are actually talking about. Dig a little deeper next time? Then again, these are quick ones because you’re going to do one for every film you see at the festival. Okay. –A