KNOWING HOW a thriller ends beforehand spoils all the fun. But if the story is based on a true criminal investigation, the knowledge provides a chilling touch of realism. Such was the case with the film Memories of Murder, a riveting hit that traced two detectives' determined yet futile hunt for the criminal behind Korea's most infamous serial killings. What most viewers do not know, however, is that Memories of Murder was adapted from an equally gripping play. Mixing humor and solemnity, Come See Me questions the audience as its characters strive - and ultimately fail - to find the killer: How far can we perceive the truth?
For six years, between 1986 and 1991, ten women were raped and strangled to death in Hwasung, Gyeonggi province. In what became Korea's first recorded serial killings, a police force of 1.8 million was mobilized and 3,000 suspects were questioned in a methodical attempt to find the murderer. After years of investigation, the culprit remains yet to be identified.
Come See Me recreates the frustrating search by putting on stage a handful of detectives inside a small, dingy police office. Under the guidance of Police Chief Kim, three detectives, each with a distinctive personality, work together to crack the case. These public servants try their best, but the culprit eludes them; they struggle against a confusing fumble of incomplete evidences, sensational half-truths, blazing media headlines, and insane suspects. In the end, the only tangible clue the detectives can cling to is Mozart's Requiem, anonymously requested through the radio each time another woman is killed.
There is no need to be daunted, however, by the gruesome subject matter or the more-than-slightly-startling poster - the criminal's pale hand pressed against rain splattered glass, with an outline of his smiling face floating eerily in the background. Come See Me is surprisingly funny, though in quite a different way from the movie.
The discrepancy is inevitable because each work's focus is ultimately different. A keen depiction of the social unease in the late 80's underlies Memories of Murder. Dark, subtle humor is usually made at the expense of the detectives, whose misguided investigations and brusque handling of the suspects strike us as horrifyingly funny. When Detective Park Doo-man arrives at a crime scene, children zigzag past the discarded body, while a local farmer, unable to hear Park's shouts over the roar of his machine, coolly runs his tractor over the only identifiable footprint that the criminal left in the mud.
True, Come See Me also has its wry moments of social commentary. Yet the main focus of the play is on how humans continue to live amidst terrible events. This is why the humor is lighter and bolder. Detectives fall in and out of love, just like everyone else; they quarrel and make mistakes. Consequently, although the detectives' investigations make up Come See Me's central framework, news reporter Park and coffee server Miss Kim also play significant roles. These characters' perky idiosyncrasies collide comically, just as they would in real life: in one scene, Detective Kim ignores Miss Kim's attempts to get the gruff detective to read his poems to her. "How poetic! What are you thinking of right now?" Miss Kim asks, cocking her head at him. "Not about me... then, life? Philosophy? Or... your childhood sweetheart?" These modest, human moments ultimately stir a moving response from the audience as they witness how the serial killings permanently affect - and often cripple - the psyches of those involved in the event.
An elusive truth
Playwright Kim Kwang-lim initially wrote and staged Come See Me ten years ago as an inquiry into the possibility of discovering the truth. The detectives know that the killer exists. But even questioning the most likely suspects yields nothing. They even fail to realize that the suspects are played by the same actor, a theatrical paradox.
"In what ways does the truth exist in a play?" Kim once wrote. "Dig into the reality of a heart-wrenchingly sad scene, and you find laughter. On the other hand, bitter tears exist under mirth's surface. Why is this so? Is it due to the jarring distance between the audience and the stage - because the audience observes, rather than partakes in the reality unfolding onstage - or because everything we know, everything that we sense, actually has many indistinguishable faces?"
Comedy and human anger coexist in Come See Me, often in the same scene. When the detectives question their mentally unsound suspect, convinced that they have finally caught the killer, the two sides' rapid, but incompatible exchanges are at once serious and side-splitting. The detectives' dramatized, caricaturized reactions to the many confusing realities they encounter paradoxically reveal how difficult it is to perceive the truth. The identity of the criminal eludes these men, leading ultimately to their physical and mental breakdown. In the end, all we are left with are Reporter Park's assurances to Chief Kim, who becomes disabled by a stroke: "The criminal is out there somewhere, and we are going to track him down! So you have to get well soon, alright?" It is a vain promise.
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Come See Me has its faults. There were times when the actors' voices did not come through clearly, and Reporter Park is a difficult character to like. However, the crushing helplessness these detectives feel as the bodies of one woman after another are found holds a power that lingers long after the play is over. Coupled with the ominous sound of the Requiem, frequent black-outs that sweep the audience from scene to scene, and typed subtitles screened onto the stage background, Come See Me sustains the acute tension of a great thriller. Playwright Kim Kwang-lim titled his work Come See Me in hopes that the killer might someday come to watch it. Take a look around as you settle down in your seat, before the lights are dimmed. People fumble to turn their cell phones off, others eye the stage expectantly. Who knows - the culprit might be easing himself into his own chair, waiting.
Interview with Byun Jung-ju
At the start of the play, Chief Kim turns Detective Kim's radio off, saying, "Mozart. Can't make stuff like this without going insane." Why do you think the playwright chose Mozart's Requiem as a motif for the serial killings?
I cannot answer that for certain, but I do know that Mr. Kim Kwang-lim is fond of Mozart's pieces. The music itself is also deeply connected to death, since requiems are composed for the deceased. Mr. Kim played Mozart's Requiem continuously when he wrote detective Kim's long soliloquy near the end of the play. As a result, that particular monologue sounds strangely musical - almost as if it were rising and falling to the rhythm of the Requiem.
|Title: Come See Me
Genre: Play, Thriller
Place: "The Stage" Shinchon
Date: July 25 ~ Sept. 20 2009
Price: S: ￦20,000 R: ￦30,000