"The Secret in Their Eyes" vs. "Memories of Murder": the police procedural under oppressive regimes

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the excellent South Korean film Memories of Murder. Now I have seen Argentina's entry in the "police procedural under oppressive regime" genre, The Secret in Their Eyes. Despite its Oscar, it is far inferior to the other film, substituting a touching but bland romance for the interpersonal complexities that characterized Memories.

Joon-ho Bong's film is interesting because the consequences of the oppression are seen through its effects on character. The rural cops have spent their time breaking up demonstrations and beating demonstrators. A real criminal is something far beyond their experience. And the thuggish and befuddled cops are, finally, sympathetic characters, or at least characters whose fate we care about. In Secret, who is oppressive and who isn't is kept carefully clear, so that there is no audience confusion about the compromises everyone makes in order to survive in an unfree society.

Secret seems like half a movie.  It sets up a situation, and then pretty much fritters it away, quickly getting to an ending that doesn't really make any sense. I won't say what it is, except that you have to spend a lot of time with the least interesting of the story's characters, to discover that he has kept an impossible secret for decades.

In order to buy the way things get resolved, we have to believe that a woman, a woman in macho Argentinean society, humiliates and degrades a violent sex criminal who ends up being a deadly and active secret policeman--and then has to have no fear of the consequences. This is the key piece of tension, and the film-makers decided to completely ignore it.

Various reviewers compared this to an episode of Law & Order, partially because of director Juan Jose Campanella's history with the show. It is really more like the first episode of a two-parter, where you only got to see previews for the second episode. Extremely unsatisfying. And don't get me started on the ridiculous typerwriter with a missing key, which seems a lot of build up for changing one word to another.

Of course, no episode of even the dumbest TV cop show would have someone fingering the killer because of a few sidelong glances in the background of photos in a photo album. Esposito's certainty (not just "here's a possibility") is itself a totalitarian attitude. He breaks into a house without a warrant, seeking evidence.  His certainty is exactly that of the rural South Korean cops of Memories, except that, through the generosity of the writer, he turns out to be right, whereas they, much more realistically, get it, not only wrong, but wrong in a way that actively hampers their investigation.

Secret does have an extremely well-cut and paced foot chase scene through a soccer stadium, and a great character in Esposito's drunken and self-sacrificial friend Sandoval.

As so often happens, my feeling about the movie is quite at odds with most commentators, who seem to universally love it.  Now, to be clear, it wasn't a terrible movie.  But it certainly does not deserve the amount of praise heaped on it.  See Memories of Murder instead.