Memories of Bong Joon-Ho
Updated: Jul 16
Congratulations to Bong Joon-Ho and the Parasite creative team on their victory at the Oscars.
Parasite is a well-deserving winner.
For some, Bong Joon-Ho is not a new name, and I have long been a fan.
Here's a review of Memories of Murder that I wrote for South Coast Magazine in 2003. I leave it here as it was written then.
Definitely a film to track down...
Memories of Murder (2003)
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
Starring Song Kang-Ho, Kim Sang-Kyung, Kim Rwe-Ha, Park Noh-Sik, Ryu Tae-Ho and Park Ha-Il
In Korean with subtitles
Memories of Murder is based on the real unsolved murders which took place in a small town outside Seoul in the late 1980s. Branded as South Korea's first serial killer the murderer took the lives of 10 women between 1986 and 1991. The case reverberated through South Korea and over 3,000 suspects were interrogated and at least 30,000 police took part. Despite everything the killer eluded the police and his identity remains a mystery.
Directed and co-written by Bong Joon-Ho this film scales down the real operation to a more film-friendly operation and shifts the focus from the usual cat and mouse serial killer hunt to the dynamics between the two detectives in charge of the investigation. The local cop who relies on instinct, Detective Park (Song Kang-Ho), and the cop from the Seoul Metropolitan Police, Detective Seo (Kim Sag-Kyung), who has been sent to assist their country cousins. Completing the investigation team is Park's deputy, Detective Cho (Kim Rwe-Ha) whose interviewing technique consists of a heavy boot to the face and side.
What follows is far from your traditional cop versus serial killer investigation seen hundreds of times from The Silence of the Lambs to Se7en. The film's dynamism comes from the two Detective's coming head to head as they investigate three key suspects and try to prevent further murders from taking place.
The similarities between the structure of Memories of Murder and those of its American counterparts are familiar. Two cops with different styles going head to head is a familiar plot device. What is new is Bong's representation of Korean police force as corrupt, brutal and incompetent. In Western films even the most slaphappy of cops will read a suspect's rights and have a superior officer insisting that he tow the line. Not here. Suspects being tortured by the police to elicit a confession seems to be common knowledge with the whole town complicit by its silence. The unsophisticated nature of the Korean crime scene analysis is also demonstrated with evidence being destroyed, tampered with and planted. The crude DNA tests available in Korea mean that they have to be sent to the US for analysis. Neither detective comes off well with wild conclusions being drawn, mistakes made and frustration running high.
But the film is not purely serial killer/police procedural - the film is set against a backdrop of violent demonstrations. school civil defence drills, appalling social and working conditions. It are these moments of reality that make Memories of Murder a cut above most Hollywood fodder. There is no cute happy ending with bad guy caught and good guys victorious; indeed by the end of the movie it is unclear quite who are the good and bad guys.
Memories of Murder was the Korean Box Office Hit of 2003 and is another telling example of the innovative and compelling cinema coming out of East Asia.