Memories of Murder (2003)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim
Plot: South Korea in 1986 under the military dictatorship: Two rural cops and a special detective from the capital investigate a series of brutal rape murder. Their crude measures become more desperate with each new corpse found. Based on a true case.
Genre: Crime / Drama / Mystery
Rating: M18 for mature theme and some disturbing scenes.
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
“There's a reason people say I have a shaman's eyes.”
Only Bong Joon-ho's second feature, Memories of Murder is such a well-written and directed film that it is no surprise it has often been considered a key work in the revival of Korean cinema in the early 2000s.
Often overshadowed by Park Chan-wook's more influential Oldboy, also released in the same year, Memories of Murder calls to attention the exciting talent of Bong, who would later make the hit monster movie The Host (2006), and the twisted and macabre Mother (2010), the latter I consider his most accomplished work to date.
Bong's films are innately suspenseful, often imbued with an uneasy sense of mystery. Memories of Murder delivers on both counts with aplomb. Based on real events set during the late 1980s when South Korea was still under a military dictatorship, the film centers on a detective who is tasked to investigate crimes seemingly committed by a serial killer-rapist.
He is joined by two other detectives in an endless, occasionally futile search for the notorious unknown man. Operating like an investigative procedural, albeit an unorthodox one with moments of comedy and sheer lack of rationality, Memories of Murder is intriguing and at times shocking.
Bong builds his film through layers, often revealing bits of information that can be useful or misleading, but everything adds up in some way or another. Closure, however, is not the name of the game here, and the best takeaway from Bong's film is the way he shapes the epilogue - a beautiful yet haunting sequence that not only opens up to numerous interpretations, but also leaves a contemplative feeling of regret, revelation, and further mystery.
The cinematography, often evocative of the gloomy setting with shots of rainy nights and dingy interrogation rooms, is also accompanied by the stirring use of strings and piano. The aural landscape of Memories of Murder is quite powerful in creating a feeling of reminiscence and uncertainty.
Bong captures a time that sees his country in literal darkness. A siren wails, and every household blacks out their homes in a civil defence routine to prepare for national emergencies. The siren wails twice in the film, with the second time taking on a more chilling effect.
Bong's masterful use of music and sound (or the lack of it) also presents the film with some of its most heart-pounding moments, scenes that play out like Hitchcock in top form. Memories of Murder is a slow-burning serial killer thriller that gets under your skin and stays with you for days.
Like Na Hong-jin's The Chaser (2008) and Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010), both considerably more violent, gory, and misogynistic than Bong's film, Memories of Murder deals with a troubling Korean psyche – as collectively and symbolically represented through recurring tropes involving personal vendettas, incompetent detectives, rampant police brutality, methodical torture of women, among many other things, as if alluding to a not-so-distant violent national past.
Verdict: A potent mix of suspense and mystery, Bong Joon-ho's excellent serial killer thriller gets under your skin.
GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)
Click here to go back to Central Station.