A climax of tricky detective drama, Bong Joon-Ho's film is not just a superb whodunit; it’s an excellent examination of evil, immorality and the inherent malleability of both
From time to time, cinema produces moments so compellingly strong, they transcend the medium. They remind us of that intrinsic magic of the silver screen, lingering long after the credits have rolled. The final sequence of Bong Joon-Ho’s seminal Memories of Murder (2003) is one such example, where a simple 'look' becomes one of the most affecting final frames ever committed to celluloid.
Set during the military dictatorship of general Chun Doo-hwan, Memories is as much a testament to South Korea’s fractious societal problems as it is a musing on the events of the country’s first fully-fledged serial murders. Based on a series of factual rapes and killings in the provincial town of Hwaesong, Bong’s film centres around a string of grisly slayings committed by an unknown culprit throughout the 1980s. Centring on the investigation efforts of a group of gritty, small-town detectives, it mixes the black comedy of pulpy cop shows with the drama of a taut Fincher-esque thriller, (incidentally, this film shares many parallels with 2007’s Zodiac) never veering off course during its 132 minute run-time. Here is a film that feels lean, tightly wound with forced confessions and high-stakes chase sequences, tense reconnaissance and nervy interrogations. And yet, it retains the melancholy intelligence of the great noirs it is so clearly influenced by – elevating its story far beyond lesser, shock-schlock material.
Following each twist and turn through the eyes of detective Park Doo-man, (brilliantly portrayed by Parasite star Song Kang-ho) the buddy-cop machismo of hardboiled Asian cinema is bolstered by roughneck goon Cho-Yong koo and Seo Tae-yoon – an outwardly clean-cut officer from the far-off, otherworldly capital of Seoul. An eclectic mix of differing personalities, the interplay between these three leads is hilarious, ratcheting up the tension between small-town incompetence, rigid city procedure, and the ever-growing need to solve a horrific – and at times heart-breaking case.
All the while, the distant wails of air-raid sirens echo in the distance, reminding us of South Korea's state of emergency during this time period. As the narrative bleeds into this real world milieu, we’re constantly reminded of the traumas that stain this country's past, permeating the story with a grounded sense of history and space.
When the murders start to form a distinct shape, a pattern emerges. In classic murder-mystery custom, we’re asked to draw our own conclusions from the brevity of investigative materials, clutching at straws until the next cryptic clue is invariably thrown our way. But crucially, that’s not where Bong chooses to situate the intrigue of his movie.
By refusing to answer our myriad questions, the film sidesteps the Hollywood need for closure and equilibrium, explanation and reassurance. Memories of Murder is haunting for the same reason it is excellent: the unsolved nature of these crimes is precisely what makes the genre so mystifying to begin with. Bong understands this fact more than most, crafting a movie that thrives on its enigmas. The result is a moody, atmospheric tone poem, pulling at the heart with its central premise. Eveil is banal, unremarkable – and it exists in all of us.
Finally receiving some recognition for his astutely observed class allegory Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho has since received some overdue exposure for his older works, but with this film, he crafted an enduring stroke of genius. The real killer, Lee Choon-jae, was caught and convicted with DNA evidence in 2019. He confessed to a staggering fourteen murders and thirty rapes, but because of South Korea’s statute of limitations laws, was never convicted for the crimes referenced here. Though he’s currently serving a life sentence for a separate 1994 killing, Memories of Murder is the closest the world will ever get to recompense. Not much of a consolation, but one that lives on as a brilliant artistic indictment in its own right.
Memories of Murder is available for purchase on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime and iTunes