Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003) and Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) have nearly mirrored opening sequences. Both feature the protagonist minuscule as they travel through an expansive rice field, with the sky meeting it at the horizon. As a flourishing and golden rice field symbolizes hope and prosperity in South Korea, a lot can be interpreted from the imagery of each film’s opening. In Memories of Murder, the highly saturated golden and blue colors of the rice and open sky imply a positive and hopeful outlook for the future, but once that is about to become undone by the preceding events of the film. Mother begins with the hues already drained from the image. The rice field is a dried, beige color, and the sky is hazy and grey. This discrepancy acts as a thesis for both films. The themes that the audience will see portrayed, such as the incompetence and cruelty of the legal system and the poor treatment of those with disabilities, have decayed South Korean society.
The two films share several plot points, but their distinct settings show how Korea has evolved between the events of each film in director Bong Joon ho’s filmography. Memories of Murder, which takes place in the late 1980s, use South Korea’s turbulent political unrest during the protest movement for democracy to backdrop the brutal serial killings of young girls in rural parts of the country. Throughout the film, this prosperity and hopeful outlook for the future is wiped away as cruelty, corruption, and authoritarianism begin to take hold of the society. These emerging traits are recognized externally by the detectives but also perpetuated by them as an arm of the corrupt and undemocratic government.
Mother, taking place in a modern setting, carries over these themes to the present and, in doing so, shows how the corruption of political institutions has degraded the legal system and society. The film follows a mother, played by Kim Hye-ja, who is trying to absolve her disabled son of murder accusations of a young woman. In her search for the real killer, she encounters indifferent and ineffective police officers, cynical lawyers, and civilians who have taken the law into their own hands, adopting fascistic methods in the process. The prosperity symbolized in the opening of Memories of Murder is in a way found here. Mother begins in a South Korea that has been reeling from corruption for several decades; it has taken its toll on the life and expectations of the average citizen.
The connections and developments between the two films are meant to be procured by the viewer and are not hidden by Bong Joon-ho, as exemplified by the opening shots. The double-feature they produce paints a picture of decline in trust of the public institution of the police to solve and prevent crimes from happening, all stemming from the authoritative stamping out of protestors and enforcement of undemocratic political systems in the 1980s accurately and ethically.
The police themselves lack empathy in both murder cases central to each film. In Memories of Murder, however, there is an innate curiosity and desire among the detectives to find the killer due to the threat posed to human life and civil society. Upon investigation, they let their violent tendencies get the best of them to discover the killer’s identity as fast as possible. In Joseph Jonghyun Jeon’s article, Memories of Memories: Historicity, Nostalgia, and Archive in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, he states, “coinciding with the end of Chŏn Tu-hwan’s military dictatorship in 1988; the appearance of violent crimes in the sleepy rural villages in which the film is set serves as a synecdoche for the vexing emergence of Korean modernity in general.” This quote determines Memories of Murder setting in the history of South Korea as an essential turning point. The potential for democracy was tangible, but not quite a reality, but with the military and police state at full, unchecked empowerment. The darkness of the gruesome murder that opens the film after the serene environment of the golden rice field establishes the hope for the future of South Korea that is quickly ripped away at the ensuing realization of the oppressive police force.
In Mother, the leap from prosperity to reality is never made because its outset provides the viewer with enough awareness of the film’s realism to the point that the corruption of the modern legal system is never in question. Upon discovery of the body of Moon Ah-jung, one of three police detectives asks the others, frank and near excitedly, “how long has it been since we had a murder case?” This line highlights the lack of empathy felt by the investigators for the victim, their view of the case only as a means of filling time, which is further proved by their hastiness in wrapping up the investigation.
The ease with which the murder of Ah-jung is solved and finalized shows the brutality of their methods and the lack of interest in resolving it thoroughly. While their assumptions that Yoon Do-joon is the killer are later proven correct, it is Mother’s investigations that find confirmation, albeit inconveniently. Before this, however, she meets with one of the detectives, who happens to be a friend of her and her son, who does little to help their case and appears to be unmotivated to do so. Inversely, the character Jin-tae is almost too active a force in seeking justice. Despite not being a police officer, he assists Mother in searching for the truth and indulges in violent tendencies. This character shows the precedent that has been set by at-times abusive law enforcement while also being an example of the desperation the complacency of that same institution brings out in people. In Sue Heun K. Asokan’s journal, The “Good” Mother’s Self(ish)-Sacrifice: Violence, Redemption, and Deconstructed Ethics in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009), she states, “considering the “good” Mother’s entrenchment in the parameters of nationhood, the film becomes an ideal site to interrogate the formation and viability of her sacrificial and redemptive moral framework.” The Mother’s temporary partnership with both ends of the law enforcement spectrum, from the police to borderline vigilantism, allows her to redeem some of the societal and moral failings that resulted in her son’s arrest.
In Memories of Murder and Mother, the detectives pin the murder on an intellectually disabled young man. In both instances, it is made clear to the audience that they may or may not have committed the crime at the time of their immediate arrest and incarceration. They are only being suspected due to their disabilities, making them an easy mark. In Memories of Murder, the character of Baek Gwang-ho, played by No-shik Park, is the prime suspect from the beginning. It is unclear whether the detectives genuinely believe he is responsible for the rape and killing or if they see Baek as someone they could easily pin the blame on to finish the investigation as soon as possible. Baek has down syndrome, and this is preyed upon by the detectives. In their various interrogations of him, which eventually become somewhat of captivity, they talk down to him as if they are speaking to someone with low intelligence. Baek grows to trust the detectives, despite his best interests not being at heart. They force a confession and a description of the events out of him but realize later that his description does not indicate him as guilty, as he had a third-party view of the killer and the victim. Despite their best efforts, the confession they coaxed out of Baek was not suitable to the narrative they would have happily perpetuated, even if untrue.
Similarly, in Mother, Do-Joon’s written confession is also coerced. After being physically threatened by one interrogator’s apple-in-the-mouth spin-kick, Do-joon signs a confession that says he is the murderer of Ah-jung and is knowingly admitting to it. Their evidence pointing to him is only a golf ball found at the scene with a set of his fingerprints. Even with this clue, which certainly points to involvement somehow, the confession he gives them is clearly dubious because of the cruel conditions they place him under. After discovering who they believe to be the true killer from a blood match, they finally admit that the golf ball was lousy evidence. Conveniently for the police, this suspect is also someone with an intellectual disability. The audience knows that this character is innocent, and Do-Joon is the true killer, so this new suspect’s appearance behind the plexiglass implies that he, too, has been coerced into confessing despite his innocence. Mother, aware of her son’s guilt, breaks into tears and leaves upon meeting the man taking Do-Joon’s place undeservedly.
In each film, Bong Joon-ho’s direction and writing depict all three intellectually disabled characters with great sympathy. He does so by rejecting the “cloak of incompetence,” described by Anne-Marie Callus in The Cloak of Incompetence: Representations of People with Intellectual Disability in Film, “People with intellectual disability are therefore metaphorically cloaked incompetence because it is wrongly assumed that the difficulties they face can be explained as being a direct result of their cognitive impairments and that none of these difficulties are created through social and cultural factors.” Both Baek and Do-joon are consistently shown to be manipulated and abused by the legal system and the rest of society regularly. What is perceived to be a product of their “incompetence” is almost always a result of someone either interfering with them or shifting blame onto them, of which they become convinced is their own fault. Bong Joon-ho primarily avoids this trope by giving emotional dimensions to his characters with afflictions. In Memories of Murder, Baek Gwang-ho is shown to have a strong relationship with his father, who, like Mother, believes their son to be innocent. We also learn about his routine and home life. The same is true of Do-joon. We meet his friends, understand his relationship with his mother, see his sexual desires and frustrations, and witness his sensitivity to being called the ‘R-word,’ which eventually becomes the catalyst for the murder of Ah-jung.
The “cloak of incompetence” is directly avoided by Bong by sympathizing with these disabled characters, but also by showing how society uses their disabilities against them when convenient. Do-joon’s friend, Jin-tae, when questioned by police after the fight at the golf course over a near hit-and-run, lays the blame for kicking the driver’s right mirror off the car on Do-joon. He accepts this because he does not remember, and Jin-tae says it with such insistence. This moment is what leads officers to believe that Do-joon has violent tendencies. In Memories of Murder, the officers begin to describe to Baek, while he is in custody, just how exactly the killer committed the rape preceding it. They do this to prey on Baek’s sexual desires, which tricks him into saying that it was him who had sex with the victim.
The result of Mother is a conclusion that pins the blame for the murder of Ah-jung on a world and legal system so unjust that it encourages a mother to tell her disabled son, “if they hit you, hit back twice.” The inherent defensive outlook on life forced upon those afflicted with disabilities ultimately causes Do-joon to strike Ah-jung to the point of her death after she calls him the ‘R-word.’ From the 1980s, authoritarian police and military state in South Korea featured in Memories of Murder, a clear connection of past to present is made to Mother. Bong Joon-ho’s two films sequentially show the dictatorial leadership in governance during that crucial period of intense civil unrest. It created a distrust in law enforcement that has not been healed and perpetuated by police officers who do not wish to win back the institutional trust of the public. The once golden rice fields featured in the opening of Memories of Murder have been dried and withered with the passage of time, as the situation has yet to be adequately addressed or rectified. Memories of Murder and Mother depict a slow disintegration caused by corruption and apathy in law enforcement.