Review: Park Jin-pyo’s “Voice of a Murderer”


The chilling docudrama Voice of a Murderer is one of the best films by Park Jin-pyo, one of Korea’s most interesting directors. His previous features Too Young to Die and You Are My Sunshine, as well as his short “Tongue Tie,” tackled provocative social subjects: the sexual life of the elderly in Too Young, HIV/AIDS in Sunshine, and oral surgery to improve English pronunciation in “Tongue Tie.” Park’s gravitation toward these subjects is a natural outgrowth of his previous experience directing television documentaries. One of these forms the basis of Voice of a Murderer, a fictionalized chronicle of the 1991 real-life kidnapping of nine-year old Lee Hyung-ho that to this day remains unsolved. It is quite a pessimistic film, since it exposes in devastating fashion the utter failure of such social systems as the police, media and religion to protect its citizens.

Han Kyung-bae (Sol Kyung-gu, one of his best performances) is a popular TV news anchor who specializes in investigative reporting. He is a self-styled man of the people doggedly exposing government corruption, his nightly commentaries decrying the inability or unwillingness of the government and law authorities to truly serve the citizenry. Kyung-bae’s media pulpit is so influential that he is contemplating a run for political office. His wife, Oh Ji-sun (Kim Nam-joo), is devoted to two things: her religious life serving as the deacon of her local church, and her quest to slim down her overweight son, Sang-woo.

As passionate as Kyung-bae’s concern is over the growing crime rate, his personal connection to this issue remains in the abstract, until one night Sang-woo is abducted at the local playground. At this point the film shifts to an intriguing hybrid of docudrama and tense thriller. This film is reminiscent of two other Korean films: Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Like Park’s film, Voice posits the crime of kidnapping as a weapon against the privileged, and like Bong’s film, it uses a true-life unsolved murder to illuminate the massive failures of law enforcement. However, in contrast to Park’s relentless genre mechanics and Bong’s slapstick humor, Voice leaves the viewer with as palpable a feeling of dread and helplessness as that felt by the parents in the film. The kidnapper is always completely in control, and enjoys playing cat-and-mouse with both the aggrieved parents and the police. Known in the film as only “The Voice,” the kidnapper (Kang Dong-won) is eerily omnipresent, joking, threatening, and cajoling, reveling in his invincibility. (The film’s Korean title translates as “That Guy’s Voice.”) We are denied an omniscient view of the action; we are afforded only frustratingly brief glimpses of a figure with his back to us, face obscured by a baseball cap. We know no more than the family and police knows, as Sang-woo’s parents can do nothing but wait for the kidnapper’s calls and do his bidding.

Park’s film is a devastating portrayal of incompetence, bad judgment, and simple rotten luck on the part of the police. All efforts to trace the call and identify the kidnapper’s voice come to naught. At one point, the kidnapper even gets the best of an undercover detective hidden in the trunk of Kyung-bae’s car, beating him and stripping him naked. The police spend as almost as much time fighting amongst themselves and with the parents as trying to catch the kidnapper.

Religion also fails to save them. At his lowest hour, Kyung-bae rips a crucifix off the wall, smashing it to pieces, and kicks members of his wife’s church out of his house. “As of today, we have no God,” he says to them.

In the film’s final scenes, we are left with the tragic image of two people who have been stripped of all hope and faith. Ji-sun beats her chest, leaving deep bruises, and Kyung-bae makes a desperate attempt to have another child to replace their lost son. Kyung-bae returns to his anchor chair in a heartbreaking scene, reporting on his own story. “I always thought such things only happened to other people,” he says, choking back tears. Kyung-bae wears his favorite tie, emblazoned with Superman’s symbol, a brutally ironic detail which only serves to highlight his own failure to save the day. The camera continues to roll, as the media machine still demands to be fed. Kyung-bae plays a tape recording, imploring the public to help him catch the kidnapper. The tape we hear, in a disturbing bit of documentary, is the actual voice of Lee Hyung-mo and his abductor.

Voice of a Murderer is a riveting and ultimately despairing film of institutional failure. The one glimmer of hope the film holds out (and Park’s motivation in making the film) is the slim chance that bringing this case back to light will expose the killer, who continues to escape detection and judgment.