It seems like an actual lifetime ago that Parasite took over the world and won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. With it, director Bong Joon-Ho crafted an impeccable story about family, class, and so much more in such a brisk runtime. This Oscar win certainly revealed his name to many, and for those looking for more of his films, only a few could be found here in the United States. Luckily, thanks to the distribution company Neon, one more of Joon-Ho’s films is now much more easily accessible, and it is none other than his 2003 crime thriller, Memories of Murder. Based off the true story of a serial killer in South Korea in 1986, this film is terrifyingly bleak due to the context of the film within the real world. It would be best to view this film without knowing the full history until after you watch, so this review will speak more on the film than the history for the sake of those who want to remain intrigued.
More than anything, this film is utterly poetic. The wonderful Song Kang-Ho plays Detective Park, a cop that knows his country and relies on his instinct more than genuine police work at times. He’s stubborn, but playful and has an eye for the job, but it very clearly plays on the line of faulty. On the other hand, there’s Kim Sang-Kyung who portrays Detective Seo Tae-Yoon, a cop from Seoul who volunteers to help. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he’s a pragmatic cop that you would expect to appear in a hard-boiled detective tale. In his words, “The answer is in the file”. Within this dichotomy comes perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire film. Not the crime itself, but rather, how the crime fundamentally changes these two opposing men chasing the same goal. It makes the final moments not only chilling, but heartbreaking above all. Because as is the case with any film from Joon-Ho, to describe Memories of Murder as a simple crime procedural is an immense disservice. Joon-Ho packs comedy, thrills, crime, political undertones, character studies, and more into this film, and does it with ease.
Joon-Ho’s immense talent as a filmmaker is truly felt, and his understanding of film language breaks down any supposed language barrier and makes films packed with emotion, that also happen to look breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s a filmmaking technique that feels it could be played without audio, and still have complete grasp over what is occurring. Detective Park and the entire police force were clearly in over their heads as the case was incomparable to any other event at the time; it was the first serial killer case in South Korean history. Crime scenes were being contaminated without proper protocol, the media was showing up and filming at will, and nobody ever appeared to be collected regarding the investigation, and this is all brilliantly shown through a frantic one-take shot through a rice paddy field. Joon-Ho’s filmmaking prowess is blatant at times such as this, but even the more subtly edited and shot moments add to the overall sense of darkness and despair that is apparent throughout Memories Of Murder.
As comedic as the film can get, it truly is a harrowing experience. The moments Joon-Ho decides to show glimpses of the killer are utterly terrifying. It doesn’t feel like a film anymore, but rather, a visceral look at the final moments of some victims. And to make it all the more grueling, how the detectives react to the proceeding killings become more and more heartbreaking. Corners very clearly become cut, Detective Park begins grasping at straws out of desperation, and even Detective Seo’s astute observations repeatedly come up empty handed. And the way Joon-Ho mentally, emotionally, and even physically at times, breaks down the police force only serves as an added layer of power that evil has over good men. And somehow, while all this is occurring, there’s civil unrest protesting for the shift to democracy in the background of it all.
Memories Of Murder is so much more than just a crime thriller. It’s a fundamental breakdown of not only the numerous systems at work, but the people who work within those systems. It’s a film that displays failure and the impact it has on people and the society around them. It’s a brilliant film full of emotion and heart, and it challenges the viewer in a multitude of ways. Deep for dissection, but also just very fantastic at surface level, this is further proof that Bong Joon-Ho deserve all his acclaim and all the love he has gotten throughout his career, especially in recent years. Neon distributing this film properly is a massive blessing, and Memories Of Murder is a film that should be viewed sooner rather than later.
Neon Pictures is releasing Memories of Murder on VOD on October 27th.