When a documentary bills itself as centring on South Korea’s first group of serial killers, the comparison to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder leaps out. Both that and Non-Fiction Diary are more than just a true-crime story, though, packed with social commentary and dark humour. Memories of Murder uses an inept and unprepared police force as representative of stilted societal evolution, whereas Non-Fiction Diary relies less on projected naïveté than some cutting comparisons with regards to the value of human life and justice. Jung Yoon-suk’s first feature length documentary (he contributed to the compilation documentary Jam Docu KANGJUNG in 2011) is more than just a companion piece to Director Bong’s, it is wholly its own creation, interweaving mixed media to craft an intelligent and measured attack on government power and the ignorance of social disparity. Elsewhere the film has been labelled merely a critique of capitalism but it is more than that, so tied into a national history and actually removed from the approach many cult of personality documentarians would have taken on the subject.
The group we focus on initially is Maskan (the Greek word for ambition), though the police, media and now history has dubbed them Jijon Clan, a group of seven young men who gruesomely killed five people between July 1993 and September 1994, including one of their own members who wished to leave the clan. That killing isn’t mentioned in the film, in fact the film never really focuses on any of the murders specifically, rather the response to it, cleverly avoiding an almost-vouyeristic approach to crime and murder and placing the film’s focus on societal impact. When we are told of the nature of the crimes, we are shown a series of still photographs taken by police from the compound and in their re-enactment of the crime (a custom in South Korea once a confession has been ascertained). This is, in fact, even more chilling, as we are fully aware we are at a distance from the actual events but also know that this distance is partly as a result of suppression.1 Director Jung says that South Korea’s rapid growth on the global scene after its move to a capitalist democracy, “many of its growing pains were kept secret, and hidden from the outside world; records of this unprecedented case were mostly erased or lost”. This documentary, then, is as much investigative as it is analytical, though it wisely allows all those involved in the investigation of this spate of murders to comment, quite extensively, on the state of South Korean political culture and the horrors of the major disasters around that time.
From early on, though, Director Jung indicates a wry humour to the affair, we see the aims of the Jijon Clan contradict themselves – tenet 1 is “we hate the rich” and tenet 3 is “we won’t stop killing until each of us has one million dollars” – and he presents the social response itself through clips from panel shows, in which ‘experts’ talk of being born evil and the need for morality and tradition to be restored in schools. There’s a hysterical aside in which the apparent host of the program laments that riot police can’t be taken seriously because their uniforms are not fashionable and another who claims that America is to be praised in response to crisis because they are willing to “shoot the protesters if necessary” – in this vein, then, the film does echo parts of Memories of Murder, in that social commentators are caught at a loss when needing to respond to the murders. What emerges from clips like this is also a cross-generational hatred, the old claiming that, just because seven young men have committed murder, that the youth of the day need strong authority figures as they have lost all respect. The murders become a lightning rod for other, oft-irrelevant, social debates and issues – a sequence in which various church groups vie for the souls of the men as they wait on death row sees the film move to absurdity, almost akin to Errol Morris’ masterful Mr. Death.
Chief Superintendent Go Byung-chun is our primary source of information, being both the arresting officer and the man who dubbed them the ‘Jijon Clan’ in the first place. He walks us through the case but calmly moves onto even bigger disasters in South Korean history – the Sampoong Department Store collapse claimed the lives of nearly 600 people and was seen to have been the result of negligence on the part of the building owners, the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge has a similar cause. The film places the response to these disasters alongside that of the Jijan Clan murders; the murderers were all executed (relatively quickly, seen as an attempt on the part of the sitting president to control public opinion and debate), whilst those responsible for many more deaths in the pursuit of cost-cutting are given lenient sentences or, in the case of the leader of a failed coup that took many lives, a full pardon. The insanity of this recent history is also conveyed with an almost exasperated humour – another detective, O Hu-geun, tells of finding a leg amonsgt the Sampoong wreckage and being told there was a person in hospital missing a leg, only to find upon their arrival at the hospital that both legs present were right legs.
Some knowledge of South Korean political history probably would have helped in the viewing of the film, many of the governmental shifts seem unclear to the lay observer and a lot of the legacies of theses leaders is left untold. However, what is clear is the film’s attack on the role of government in manipulating the public and neglecting rural areas with low economic prospects, such as the town where these murders occurred. There’s also a running commentary on the failures of the media and representation of the event on television and radio – there’s a bold sequence that recalls the director’s cut of Fincher’s Zodiac (where we see a black screen as a montage of sound plays) in which we follow a winding road at night, the lower half of the screen completely black, listening to comments about the case. It’s a juxtaposition of fear mongering and then a visual creation of unsettling unknown, almost facetious.
The film does thereafter touch on the debate around the death penalty in South Korea but the film is restrained in projecting its own opinion. Go Byung-chun finds himself ambivalent as a result of not being able to decide which he feels more strongly about, so he errs on the side of keeping things the same, a sentiment which is a paradoxical problem – the lack of impetus to revolt against inhumane treatment (later we see a political challenge to this, though) running alongside the rapid economic development in the nation, to the detriment of social policy.
Non-Fiction Diary is not an exhaustive work, despite the fact that it runs the gamut from murder to politics, media to religion. It is a clear-minded, well-edited piece of modern documentary reporting, that presents its social narrative with humour and a variety of opinion. It’s an illuminating story of national crisis but also international ignorance, the film acting, perhaps incidentally, as very educative with regards to modern South Korea. As such, the film stands as one of the most intriguing documentaries of the year and one which masterfully plays off the appeal of crime to tell an important historical and social story, its seemingly muted cry of reform powerful under the skin.