Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho)
Between the Seats prides itself in offering readers concise, intelligent and articulate movies reviews in as professional a tone as possible given that we are not, in truth, professionals. Every now and then our crack team of avid movie watchers stumbles upon a film that serves up such an immediate impact that, for lack of a better term, a ‘geekiness’ kicks in and we go bananas. Since the inception of the Far East Specials column, a few modern Korean films have been examined (I Saw the Devil made us a bit loopy as well), giving readers an idea of what genre films are emerging from that country’s startlingly audacious movie industry. Intellectualism be damned. Haughty taught personality, we don’t need that here today. Screw that shit. I just watched Memories of Murder.
From writer director Bong Joon-ho comes a dark and deceptively simple tale of a strange murderer on the run and the unorthodox and inadequate detective squad sent after him or her. The story is inspired by a real investigation involving of a serial killer who hunted down vulnerable young women from 1986 to 1991. The film’s first scene quickly reveals that few punches will be held back, as detective Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-ho) studies the filthy body of a young girl laying in some sort of ditch in the Korean countryside, in the Gyeonggi Province more specifically. Perched on the ceiling of the small cement compartment (which I assume is some small ravine for water to run down) in which the body was deposited is a small boy, no older than 10, most likely unaware of the gruesome find below his feat. He observes the detective at work, mimicking the man’s facial expressions, including those of surprise and confusion when the older man realizes the kid is making fun of him. Tit for tat.
Wait, what is going on here?
Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did! The first Bong Joon-ho film I had the privilege of seeing was his most recent outing, Mother, which relished in meshing varying tones into one memorable tale which also involved gruesome deaths. Well, at the risk of making an audacious comment, it could be argued that with Mother, Bong in fact restrained himself in regards to shifting tones and styles. Memories of Murder takes the cake of all the films from all the recent Korean directors who have ventured into genre filmmaking (Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Lee Jeong-beom, etc). This film is the granddaddy of them all. Such a feeling should not be stated as fact, nor was that my intention. The legions of fans that Park-Chan-wook deservedly accumulated for his vengeance trilogy, more specifically Oldboy, means it is no secret that Bong Joon-ho has some catching up to do. Regardless, in the eyes of this reviewer, there is o better modern Korean genre film than Memories of Murder. What’s more, it is one of the best movies I have ever seen, period.
Back to the film’s plot (how often have we caught off our plot synopses for the purpose of fanboy gushing? Yes, that’s how much I love this movie), the police, who find themselves in uncharted territory since very few murders occur in the region, call upon a more experienced cop from the capital Seoul, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-yung) to help sniff out the perpetrator of these heinous crimes, which grow in number by the week it seems. Indeed the local detectives need all the help they can acquire, as their methods are woefully inadequate for the task at hand. Physical abuse, death threats, all is fair game if it means catching the murderer, or anybody for that matter. Naturally, all of this is sprinkled with humour that produced more than its share of knee slapping laughter. The more films of this ilk I watch, the more I fear I might become accustomed to this sort of directorial style, which is a shame because I currently feel continuously amazed at what artists such as Bong Joon-ho have to offer. Again, the review is going to enter simplified geek review lingo, but he simply ‘gets it.’ It is possible to make a movie about a ruthless killer who preys on helpless women, rapes them, kills them, with violent cops on the trail, leaving almost as many broken spirits as the killer leaves broken bones, but make sure the audience is having a good time. Not shocking them for the sake of sake if it, but a genuinely fun, good time. There are shocks, there is violence, some of it even quite brutal, but the movie is entertaining on a strangely broad level, as though Bong decided he was going to make a genre film but insert of as many mainstream-audience friendly moments as possible. This makes the entire ordeal all the more crazy because the two styles…I want to say should not mix, but what is the point in denying it, they do. The local detectives bully a mentally challenged teenager into confessing. And it’s funny!
Setting aside the director’s masterful juggling of tone, the script itself excels at developing the character arcs remain strong throughout and serve a punch to the gut by the end. Detective Sae, the outsider, finds the investigative methods utilized by the locals quite appalling and counter-productive. As the case becomes increasingly frustrating due to the killer’s elusiveness, Sae’s mentality slowly changes, resembling that of the locals. Desperation calls for more brutal behaviour, more forcefulness. The man brought in from Seoul because he has plenty of experience in these matters has realized that this killer is outsmarting them all. By the climax, it is detectives Park and his usually menacing partner Cho who are trying to reign in detective Sae. Of the three leading men, Song Kang-ho leaves the most lasting impression, mostly because of the liveliness with which he inhabits the character of detective Park. This is man who simply wants to get the job done, regardless of whether or not the task is accomplished according to rules or regulations. For him, being a detective is a job that allows for him to behave anyway he so desires. Lock someone up, get paid, take the credit. Little to no consideration is giving to the fact that by arresting the wrong person, the real killer will remain at large. At times funny, other times strict and intimidating, Song Kang-ho excels at playing a dirty cop one would want on their side just too see how interesting things can get.
Much praise has been heaped onto the film for its noticeably handsome cinematography. Once again, Joon-ho’s films earns the right marks. The picture is rich with deliberate lighting choices and awash with terrific detail to set the mood of specific locations. Among the many droplets of eye candy which await the willing viewer, terrific shots of the cold, almost dingy interrogation room the detectives use to harass people under suspicion, a beautiful night time scene in a field where the detectives spy on a man they believe to be the killer (who is masturbating to a set of woman’s clothing set on the grass), and of course the opening and closing scenes, bookends of you will, which transpire at the infamous field where the first murder victim was discovered. The film avoids too stylish a look, opting for something that resonates more closely with reality. Nonetheless, the camera set ups are what make these scenes brilliant to look at. Cinematography needs to do more than just look good, but also assist in storytelling, of which mood plays a significant role. The cinematography in Memories of Murder does just that, as would be the case some years later in Mother.
Confident storytelling, memorable characters, a sadistic yet oh so suave fusion of disparate tones, a pace that never lulls, character arcs that are born out of and serve the overall story, the list of positives can go on and on. More than once it has been written how cop movies are a personal favourite at the blog, but Bong Joon-ho goes the extra mile, crashing the barriers. He builds on the tried, tested and true elements of the genre all the while adding new ones to heighten the experience. What the viewer is left with is Memories of Murder. It is next to impossible to tell what will happen next. Will it be an oddly grotesque scene featuring yet another corpse (the autopsy scene immediately comes to mind), something that will make us laugh, another surprise in the investigation? We know that Bong may do anything next, which also means we do not know what he will do next.