Directed by: Bong Joon-ho || Produced by: Cha Seung-jae
Screenplay by: Bong Joon-ho, Shim Sung-bo || Starring: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roi-ha, Park Hae-il, Byun Hee-bong, Jeon Mi-seon
Music by: Taro Iwashiro || Cinematograhy: Kim Hyung-ku || Edited by: Kim Sun-min || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 127 minutes
Though not Bong Joon-ho’s first feature project, Memories of Murder was the Korean director’s breakout film that, along with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) released that same year, was one of the key movies that launched the Korean national film industry to international fame, and established their film stable’s reputation for producing quality thrillers. Similar in premise but different in tone than 2008’s Chaser, Memories of Murder (MoM) recounts the east Asian country’s first known serial murders and the efforts of local law enforcement to capture the killer.
The film provides few, if any answers in its characters’ search for the truth, and spends most of its time commenting on the nature of human criminality and the occasional futility of community intervention to protect victims from harm. The ending in particular is hard to stomach, though an epilogue scene summarizes what the story has showed us in our long, sad, but ultimately enlightening journey for justice.
MoM was also one of the early breakout roles for soon-to-be frequent Bong-collaborator, actor Song Kang-ho. Song gives a great performance as the lead detective on the murder case and works well with the rest of the cast, most notably costar Kim Sang-kyung, who plays the Seoul “big city” detective assisting the local investigation. Through the narrative’s study of police corruption, the chaotic political climate of the time, and reference-quality ensemble staging, Bong examines the opposing law enforcement ideologies of these two men as the murder mystery consumes them and bodies of female victims stack up at an alarming rate. Kim’s hardened city detective is the more experienced and battle-tested of the two, while Song’s behavior and attitude toward the case is erratic, impatient, and headstrong.
The two continue to butt heads until the magnitude of the murder crisis forces them to come to terms with each other and work together. By the end of the tragedy, Kim has lost a good deal of his composure due to their frustration with determining the identity of the killer, where as Song has begun to mature as he recognizes the futility of their actions.
Bong orchestrates impressive jump-scares and bleak rural imagery, but the film’s purposefully disorganized feel, quirky characters, and several comical (perhaps satirical) set-pieces distinguish the film’s mood from that of a bleak Oldboy or similarly themed Chaser. Bong focuses on the characters of the policemen and their relationship with the sleepy, small-town community where the crime takes place. The film uses its characters and washed-out visuals as a case study of crime and justice in general, rather than losing itself in the central crime. The narrative’s thematic content is broader and more universal than a Chaser or Oldboy as a result.
In my opinion, Bong’s Memories of Murder fills out the Korean thriller-trifecta further completed by Park’s and Na Hong-jin’s films. All three are marquee examples of Korean thriller potency and share dark subject matter, but the details of each tale are unique such that they speak different messages in their own ways. Memories of Murder is the most relatable and realistic of the three, as its story structure is the most traditional other than its ambiguous ending. Don’t expect any easy answers from this film, other than the conclusion that sometimes life just doesn’t provide any. Bong’s Memories of Murder is not necessarily creepy, but it is without question unsettling in its applicability.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bong pens a tangible, relatable tale that boasts an unforgettable conclusion. Its characters are well written and well played, especially by leads Song and Kim. Memories of Murder’s bleak yet beautiful cinematography, sleepy colors, and effective ensemble staging weave unforgettable pictures of a small, otherwise innocent town turned upside-down by an evildoer. It is beautiful in its “normality.”
— However… one key character’s death scene is ridiculous. Some of the early conflict between Song and Kim feels forced.
? This is the fourth Korean film I’ve seen where the police beat the crap out of their suspects and hardly anyone bats an eye. How common is this in Korea?