Roughly two years ago, I was doing a marathon of Spike Lee films in preparation for BlacKkKlansman, and one of the films of his I had available through my library was his remake of Oldboy. I fortunately decided to do the smart thing and watched Park Chan-wook’s original film from 2003, and it truly fucked me up (those of you who have seen it know why), and it also made me enjoy Lee’s truly terrible remake even less, but more importantly it opened up my eyes to the wonders of South Korean genre cinema. However most of my exposure for a while was limited to the films of Park and Kim Jee-woon, and it wasn’t until a few months ago I started to dive into the films of another South Korean auteur; Bong Joon-ho. I decided to watch as many films of his as I could before I saw his new film Parasite, and the first one I saw was his sophomore feature, Memories of Murder from 2003, and in very short time it has risen in stature as my favorite film of Bong Joon-ho’s and one of my favorite films in general.
Memories of Murder is often compared to David Fincher’s Zodiac in that they’re both films based on the real investigations of a serial killer who was never caught. But whereas Fincher uses Zodiac to provide the viewer with a clinical observation of the case and the fear and obsession it brought to the state of California in the late 60s and early 70s, Bong fictionalises the case in Memories to Murder and uses the case itself to explore the social conditions of Korea in the late 1980s, police brutality and how a general lack of competence lead to the killer never being caught until just recently (he was identified and confessed as late as last September, already sitting in jail for an unrelated crime).
In order to highlight the general incompetence and brutality amongst the police and the political system, Bong brings us elements of satire and comedy that range from chuckle-inducing to laugh out loud moments of absurdity and silliness. But the comedy comes with a dark edge, since the police are shown abusing (both verbally and physically) and beating their suspects for what seems like ages, all whilst the real evidence and the actual crime-solving almost becomes secondary to simply get the case closed rather than actually finding the culprits. And the higher-ups in the establishment are no better, since they are too busy fighting demonstrations and protests than to provide protection to their own population. But it comes at a price, since all of their actions (or inaction rather) comes back to haunt all the characters in the film, therefore changing them as people and in some respects, their way of looking at the world.
Although Detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seo (Kim Sang-kyun) are technically the two leads, the film functions more on the basis of an ensemble, with all the characters providing some importance to the proceedings presented in the film. And Bong and his cinematographer Kim Hyung-koo demonstrate this point brilliantly with their overall shooting style, favoring extended long shots in which the actors are allowed to play around within the frame and the space of the location, which rather than distancing the viewer it makes the viewer more of a participant since they’re given the option of which character to observe at any given time, rather like a detective if you will. And the way the characters are positioned in relationship to one another is also masterful and is all done in service of the narrative and the themes of the movie. It’s a virtual film school on how to stage scenes and how important the spatial relationship between the characters are.
On this subject, Martin Scorsese once said that “cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”, meaning that everything you as director decide to put in the film (framing, music, cuts, lights etc) should be there for some reason, be it for character, narrative, theme etc. And much like his contemporaries of South Korean cinema, Bong understands this philosophy completely and this goes beyond the shooting style. The way Bong and his co-writer Shim Sung-bo structure the script, every element of the film serves some kind of function to the overall film. For example, the film begins and ends with warm colors that invoke optimism and hope, but the majority of the film is shown through more desaturated colors that gives you a sense of the fear and the hopelessness our characters feel when they feel unable to find the killer and find the answers they’re looking for. We are just as lost as they are, in these times of darkness.
Now I can’t discuss the ending. I truly wish I could so I could talk about it’s brilliance, but since I want more people to see this masterpiece, I won’t do it. But what I can say is that Bong, much like he does in his later films like The Host and Parasite, brings the narrative full circle by the end, therefore turning the film into a much richer and satisfying whole, especially on repeat viewings. I know I mentioned that most of the film is built around long shots as opposed to close-ups, but when the movie decides to use a close-up, it’s completely deliberate and thought-provoking. And the last visual of Memories of Murder is one of the most haunting closing images in any movie I’ve seen recently. And in the end, we won’t find the killer amongst the perverts, the insane or the loners, the killer is right amongst us. We just have to look for that other face in the crowd, and we might be looking at the face of a killer.