Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-Ho, CJ Pictures, 2003)
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
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 stunningly realised, so compellingly strong, that we are collectively transformed by their power. Rare though they may be, these scenes and sequences make up the very best of the medium. They remind us of that intrinsic, inalienable magic contained within the peripheries of the silver screen. They linger long after the credits have rolled. The final sequence of Bong Joon-Ho’s seminal Memories of Murder (2003) is one such example of this phenomenon; a superb showcase of unmatched visual agility and narrative prowess, culminating in one of the most affecting codas ever committed to celluloid.
Set during the military dictatorship of strong-arm 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 during the 1980s, Bong’s film centres around a string of grisly slayings committed by an elusive, unknown culprit. Centring on the investigation efforts of a group of gritty, small-town detectives, Memories mixes the black comedy of pulpy cop shows with the high-stakes drama of a taut Fincher-esque thriller, (incidentally, this film shares many parallels with 2007’s Zodiac) never veering off course during its ostensibly baggy 132 minute run-time. This is a film that feels lean, tightly wound with the forced confessions and high-stakes chase sequences, tense reconnaissance and nervy interrogations, yet it still retains the melancholy gloominess and depth that defines the great noirs it is so clearly influenced by.
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 fellow police goon Cho-Yong koo and Seo Tae-yoon, an outwardly clean-cut officer from the far-off, otherworldly capital, Seoul. An eclectic mix of differing personalities, the macho interplay between these three leads is hilariously scabrous and satirical, 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 and echoes of air-raid sirens echo at sporadic intervals, reminding us that in spite of the dizzying puzzles involved in this saga, the entire southern faction of the Korean peninsula was concurrently living in a state of perpetual fear during this time period. Bong Joon-Ho is a filmmaker who situates his narrative beats in the gritty, urbane conflicts of the real world, and no matter how melodramatic things outwardly seem, we’re always reminded of the harsh realities of Korea’s troubled past, permeating the story with an affecting sense of history and space.
As the murders start to form a distinct shape, a pattern starts to emerge. In classic murder-mystery custom, we’re asked to draw our own conclusions from the brevity of investigative materials on display, clutching at straws until the next cryptic clue is invariably thrown our way. But that’s not where Bong chooses to situate the real intrigue of this movie – the film refuses to answer our myriad questions and queries, sidestepping 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 and engaging to begin with. Bong understands this fact more than most, crafting a movie that thrives on its unspecific elements. The result is a moody, atmospheric tonal poem, one that stains the mind with arresting images and pulls at the heart with its central premise: evil is normal, unremarkable, and it exists in each and every one of us, lest we may think so.
Finally receiving some recognition from the academy awards for his astutely observed class allegory Parasite (2019), Bong Joon-Ho has since received some richly deserved 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 thanks to South Korea’s statute of limitations laws, he 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 and reflection. A sad consolation for sure, but one that unvaryingly lives on as an affecting artistic indictment in its own right.
Memories of Murder is available for purchase on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Prime and iTunes