The Beginner’s Guide to Korean True-Crime Cinema · Killing Michael Jackson
Plus: running the numbers on "Live PD," a cult-documentary catchup, and more
As if 2020 weren’t already messing with our senses of time, it’s one of those years where Labor Day is really late and September kinda sneaks up on you. The end of another month definitely snuck up on me, so I’m late with the real bonus book review, but in the interim, I reviewed James Renner’s True Crime Addict for all you paid subscribers. The Murakami review’s coming in a few days.
In the meantime, let’s pick the next book I read! The poll’s here; you can vote for multiple entries, so if you can’t decide, there’s no need to! — SDB
The ending of Showtime’s super-watchable Love Fraud hinted at a Season 2 (maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part)…so of course I bit on Decider’s click-bait “Where Is ‘Love Fraud’s Richard Scott Smith Now?” headline. And of course the piece was 97 percent a recap of the docuseries/its making, and approximately zero percent hard facts on what Smith’s up to and where.
(Semi-spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched, although I think you should.)
All Decider’s Kayla Cobb is able to offer is the directors’ suspicions about Smith’s current whereabouts, saying they “believe that Smith has returned to the midwest and returned to scamming women.” The final shot of the last episode makes that clear; I’d love some clarity on where in the midwest; whether the Revenge Squad is still on his case; and whether the Love Fraud team is still on his case for a follow-up.
I agree that that’s so, Joe. Joe’s my boss over at Primetimer, where I wrote about The Vow (like it a lot) AND, today, about one key problem with the series: viewers who DIDN’T get screeners the way I did have to wait a whole week between episodes. How to pass the time? Dig into seven OTHER series or documentaries about cults or extreme sects. I’ve talked about most of these on the podcast or here on B.E. before, but here’s a snip about Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, which has
stayed with me ever since I saw it on American Experience in the aughts. From the painstaking history lesson on Jim Jones' humble, and well-intentioned beginnings, to the horrifying audio of the massacre, the film builds from a sense of foreboding to a heavy grief. It's excellent, and you'll never want to watch it again.
The piece also notes where you can watch everything I list…and that list was initially quite a bit longer, so if you think I left anything off (Waco: The Rules of Engagement, for instance; it was in the running!), let me know. — SDB
If you watched Parasite and thought, yes, I want some more of that, but were daunted by Netflix’s avalanche of romantic K-dramas, check out some of the true crime-based films that have come out of South Korea’s prolific movie industry. Many of these are getting wider attention thanks to Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar triumph, including his acclaimed serial killer story Memories of Murder (2003). It’s a good place to put together your own personal true-crime film festival, with all the murder, corruption, and police brutality you could want.
Not to be confused with 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer (film distributors, I see what you did there), Director Bong’s meticulously researched Memories of Murder is based on the Hwaseong serial murders of the 1980s. It’s also a reflection of a chaotic time in Korean history, when political protests had led to a devastating crackdown by military leaders, but also when the country’s economy was beginning to transform. All of this is reflected in the movie, which condemns the ham-fisted investigative techniques of the local police force — a choice that allegedly compelled detectives to improve their tactics, culminating in a shocking arrest in 2017 of the real-life killer.
Watch: Currently not on a major streaming service in the U.S., though I’d bet hard cash that Bong Joon-Ho’s back catalogue will land on one of them in a storm of hype sometime over the next year.
The star of both Parasite and Memories of Murder is Song Kang-ho, the powerhouse actor who is currently having a run that rivals De Niro or Nicholson in their primes. Like De Niro, he’s also starred as a taxi driver, in 2017’s A Taxi Driver. No points for an original title, but just try to resist getting caught up in the true story of a German journalist who arrived in Seoul and needs a ride to the city of Gwangju. His ornery driver just wants to get the fare and drop the annoying foreigner off, but unknowingly heads into the aftermath of a student protest against the martial-law government. Troops have barricaded Gwangju off while they violently suppress citizens. What happens when the reporter and the driver reach the city will change both their lives, and lead to a car chase that’s around 900% more emotional than any other you’ve ever seen.
Watch: Streaming on Hulu and Hoopla, available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube.
Because there are Scorsese wannabes everywhere in the world, you can take your pick for a Wolf of Wall Street-style epic of corruption, violence, and power, accompanied with partying scenes that hit a few thousand miles south of tasteful. 2017’s The King has a tight narrative grip, leaving no indulgence untouched in the story of the rise and fall of a powerful prosecutor; it’s only loosely based on fact, but the torrent of state corruption cases that have taken up Korean headlines for the last decade provide an enlightening backdrop.
Watch: Streaming on Tubi, available for rent on Amazon.
Our old friend Song Kang-ho shows up in The Drug King (2018), a workmanlike South Korean Scarface based on the precipitous real-life rise of a smuggler-turned-drug dealer who flooded the Japanese market with crystal meth. Like many Korean thrillers, there are no real heroes here — even the cop who eventually nails the drug lord is a violent bully who beats up suspects for intel. While this doesn’t hit too high on the Tony Montana debauchery scale, it’s got some glorious 1970s outfits and co-stars the great Bae Doona, making it more than worth a couple of hours.
Watch: Streaming on Netflix.
The Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel is full of features from the 1930s onwards that celebrate the country’s rich cinematic history. Its collection includes the second-ever Korean film with a female director, 1962’s A Woman Judge. Restored off an iffy 16mm print, it’s full of vintage outfits — and vintage sexism. Based on a real story of a woman judge killed under suspicious circumstances, it plays out like a mid-century Law & Order episode mixed with potent family melodrama. Clearly missing some footage, it’s more of a curiosity than a classic, though it makes sharp points on how misogyny operates in family relationships. There’s also a storming closing speech from the title character that would get the Alex Cabot seal of approval.
Watch: On YouTube.
The sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014 was a disaster that claimed the lives of 304 people, many of whom may have been saved earlier if not for a botched response by the Korean Coast Guard and the government. There would be three separate investigations of the incident, leading to homicide charges for some crew members, and the eventual impeachment of President Park Geun-hye came after criticism of her reaction. Two documentaries, both available on YouTube, investigate not just the sinking but the attempts at covering up the truth. The 2018 Oscar-nominated short In the Absence is a sober recounting of the ferry sinking and the long legal battles afterwards, while 2014’s Diving Bell/The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol is a furious, on-the-ground report with journalist Lee Sang-ho. Lee lost his job over his coverage over the sinking, and has continued to criticise state broadcasters for their inaccurate reporting.
Watch: In the Absence on YouTube,
and The Truth Shall Not Sink with Sewol on YouTube. — Margaret Howie
Upcoming content ahoy! My man Brett at Bounce (never heard of the network? more info here!) got me a screener of Killing Michael Jackson, which premieres on Labor Day at 8 PM ET. I’ll have a review for you before the weekend, but in the meantime, here’s the film’s teaser:
And Netflix has set a premiere date for American Murder: The Family Next Door; no trailer yet, but the documentary about the disappearance of Shanann Watts and her two young daughters premieres September 30 on the streamer. Watts’s family was evidently unhappy with Lifetime’s take on the case earlier this year, saying Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer is exploitative and noting that they weren’t consulted. (We noted back in February that, among other “distasteful” elements of the special, Watts was trying to Twinkie-defense it by blaming nutritional supplements for sleep-deprivation psychosis, so without having seen CW:CoaK myself, I’m Team Shanann Family on this one.) — SDB
From one of our favorite tipsters, my esteemed work bride Tara Ariano, comes another slam of Live PD, this one wondering whether the show made car chases faster and more frequent. At first, it seems like this too is just click-bait — not that any of us doubted the malign influence of the show, but the opening caption mentions that “half of the 2019 pursuits” the Williamson County cops were involved in took place in the “28 weeks” the show was filming. I was not an arithmetic major, but half a year is twenty-six weeks, so that rate isn’t probative.
Fortunately, the body of Tony Plohetski’s Austin American-Statesman piece from last week drills down better on the numbers:
The chase that led to Javier Ambler’s death was one of three that day initiated by Williamson County sheriff’s deputies. For an agency that saw fewer than 30 pursuits the entire previous year, three in one day was an anomaly.
But during the 11 months that the A&E Network featured Sheriff Robert Chody and his deputies on its popular weekly show, high-speed pursuits increasingly became the norm.
The American-Statesman analyzed more than 150 pages of pursuit reports and found deputies initiated 40 pursuits in 2019, a 54% increase from the previous year. The department also did chases at a higher rate than other Central Texas law enforcement agencies that weren’t being filmed.
Despite national safety recommendations that police give chase only when a serious safety threat exists, 60% of Williamson County pursuits started over minor traffic infractions such as failure to signal and displaying unreadable license plates, records show. At least two of the 2019 pursuits involved someone who officers believed was armed and dangerous.
More than 1 in 5 of the 2019 pursuits involved Black individuals even though they make up less than 1 in 10 Williamson County residents.
The piece goes on to note, among other eye-rollers, that Chody is a “lottery-made millionaire” who “wooed” Live PD to help with recruiting…and create an “avid fan base” for his deputies. Anyway, not a ton new here, but in case you’d forgotten the deadly Heisenberging Live PD was alleged to have induced, Plohetski’s breakdown is a worthwhile reminder. — SDB
Here’s another worthwhile reminder: we pay! We don’t pay well, but we’re working on it, and paid subscriptions will let us pay better and more often, so if you’re considering one, today’s a great day to make the leap!
And if you’d like to get paid — for a listicle, Errol Morris bingo card, or the like? Reach out! Contact info’s below; we offer dozens of dollars for your content! — SDB