“Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies.” –Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 1977.
Upon rewatching Memories of Murder (2005) by Bong Joon-ho, I had the opportunity to reconsider the film entirely from a gender studies perspective.
The film opens on a bright yellow rice field where the grain dangles, ripe for harvest. (What is more fruitful to us humans than a woman’s womb?) On the day of the first murder case, October 23, 1986, Detective Park Doo-man goes to ditch and stares into the dark and narrow tunnel. Shoved deep inside, he finds the corpse of a dead woman whose arms and legs are expertly tied back.
The dark black tunnel that these male detectives stare into and continue to scrutinize for signs and answers is significant of male misconception, misrecognition, and lack of understanding of the female body.
As the deaths pile up, it becomes evident that the bodies are always found in a setting that likens a woman’s body. The trench tunnel is one, which obviously indicates a woman’s vaginal canal. Another is found among large stacks of hay that look like breasts. The field is a rice field—again, a fruitful place much like a woman’s sex organs. Two other bodies are found deep inside a forest thick with trees like a woman’s pubic hair.
As the search for the serial killer sharpens towards the midpoint of the film, the forensic team finds that the murderer has inserted foreign objects into the victim’s vagina. Inside one corpse, the forensics team finds pieces of a peach. Inside another corpse—a teenage girl’s—the team finds the items that were found inside the girl’s backpack such as a pen, razor and spork. The forensics team can’t find any semen inside the victims’ bodies but they do find items that were found on the woman shortly before she was killed.
At the very least, Bong has an awareness of Freudian concepts, and an interest in sexuality and psychoanalysis. I recall this from a Q&A he gave after a screening of Mother (2009) at the 12th International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul back in April 2010. Bong was the only male filmmaker whose film was shown at the festival solely because of the subject of his film—a mother.
When an audience member asked about the Oedipal tension between the widow (Kim Hye-ja) and her son Do-joon (Won Bin), Bong denied any actual physical sex between the parent and child, but did acknowledge that Western notions that linked female hysteria her deprivation of sex was in part an inspiration to his film. The film treats phallic symbols interestingly throughout. Do-joon–the son–is the prime phallic presence at home where he and his mother live together. Later, the mother takes on a kind of peeping-Tom position—a male position thereby becoming herself phallic–when she spies on Jin-tae (Jin Goo) having sex with his girlfriend. During the Q&A, Bong also recalled a story he’d read in the news regarding a case where a man who lived in a single room home with his mother was suspected of raping young girls he would adopt then send back to foster care, one by one. Aside from the monstrous actions of the man, Bong said he was more concerned with the mother who did not blow the whistle on her son’s molestations, which she could not have missed considering the size of their home being just a single room.
Bong claimed that his intent with the film was to challenge the audience with a question on how far a mother’s love for her child can reach, and if it goes beyond society’s moral bounds. A woman’s intense connection to her son coupled with a sex-deprived hysteria is a disastrous combination to Bong.
In Memories of Murder, Bong’s desire to understand the female body and its mysteriousness is ever present, and he utilizes various male figures to do the scrutinizing. In this sense, the film is very phallocentric. The male detectives who find and examine the bodies have a legitimized phallic presence in the film. They allow the viewer to access the female body with an OK’d sense of authority thus negating any possibilities of scopophilia; given their badged status, they are allowed to look into the woman’s vagina, and we as onlookers, are also cleared. Through these badged phallices, the audience traverses a number of deep, dark tunnels. We’ve already covered the tunnel inside the ditch. Then there’s the train tunnel—again a deep, dark presence in the film. Another dark hole is found in the film’s series of references to the toilet or outhouse.
The tunnel is a place where found objects always lead to a destruction of the person’s body and/or consciousness. In the case with the women’s bodies, there’s the obvious hint: death. With the detectives, there’s always fist-fighting that erupts near the train tunnel, typically over his male ego. As Irigaray puts it, the penis is only good for its “rivalry” capabilities: “…’strongest’ being the one who has the best ‘hard-on,’ the longest, the biggest, the stiffest penis, or even the one who ‘pees the farthest’…” These persistent male distractions keep the detectives from finding any answers to the town’s serial killings of women.
At the train tracks and tunnel, there’s always death and violence: on one occasion, a mentally disabled boy named Kwang-ho (Park No-sik) gets killed at the tracks after the police lose their patience with him and start to beat him for answers; on another occasion, the detectives beat up Hyeon-gyu (Park Hae-il), their prime suspect, without any amounting evidence to confirm whether or not he is in fact the murderer. The significance of these kinds of male-ego cockfights that occur near the dark black tunnel is, again, Bong’s illustration of man’s inability to make sense of a woman’s body.
The fact that the murderer puts foreign objects into the woman’s vagina is further indication of male ignorance with regards to the female body. Rather than placing his penis into it, he puts in objects. This, at the very least, indicates the murderer’s impotence, and impotence—interchangeably viewed as incompetence—is another major theme in the film. The police demonstrate their incompetence as effective case solvers, the government demonstrates its incompetence to its society by using up military resources to squash the people’s political demonstrations rather then sending help to the town which is in a state of emergency due to the serial killings. The town demonstrates its incompetence by spreading gossip around the murders which further muddles the investigation. The town’s journalists spread news of incompetence of the town’s police force and their government thus hurting overall morale. The nation displays its incompetence by not having the right technology and resources to get a proper DNA testing performed.
The film’s final shot when Doo-man breaks the fourth wall and stares straight into the deep, dark tunnel of the camera lens, the deep dark room of the theater, into the deep, dark eyes of the viewers, what is he seeing?
He sees the inexplicable, and Doo-man’s expression filled with fear, emotion and urgency is the filmmaker alerting us—the audience—to take on that responsibility. It is up to us to find the murderer by first coming to terms with the unknowable. This is a push for gender equality. By persistently mystifying the woman’s body, we’ve failed to protect it, and we’ve allowed it to go harmed. When we stare into the black screen awaiting answers, what are we seeing? What are we registering? These inexplicable images are what we need to intelligize. The onus is partially on us as viewers. Our language and discourse have a role in making gender equality a reality.