Movie Review
Memories of Murder


Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Roe-ha, Kim Sang-kyung

f you’re unaware that Asia is the new Europe, when it comes to nudging and, sometimes, expanding the boundaries of contemporary cinema, I’m not sure where you’ve been the past fifteen or so years. In this space, I’ve written about extraordinary exports from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, and Thailand. Of late, however, it’s another Asian nation that’s drawn a considerable amount of attention from movie buffs and critics. Film Comment recently ran a piece detailing Korean films, while Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy proved a major hit at Cannes, as well as among Stateside cinephiles upon its limited U.S. release earlier this year. If Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong aren’t names as recognizable, as say, Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-hsien, they may yet be soon.

Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, released theatrically this year and now available on DVD thanks to Palm Pictures, isn’t the sort of zeitgeist-capturing classic that Korean cinema will ultimately need to really break through on the international scene, but it’s still a tighter, more thoughtful policier than Hollywood’s produced in years, 1997’s self-consciously retro L.A. Confidential potentially withstanding. The film, set in 1986, looks back on the case involving South Korea’s first serial killer, a Buffalo Bill-esque sexual predator preying on lone women on rainy nights.

Distinguishing Bong’s procedural from most standard-issue crime pics (and, for that matter, the seemingly dozen CSI and Law & Order spin-offs populating network television) is a singular tone established from the film’s earliest moments, and successfully sustained through its present-day coda. What makes Memories a memorable entry in the crime canon is, above all, Bong’s deft ability to balance serious-minded reflections on the gruesome nature of the titular murders alongside the unique brand of dark humor with which he views the film’s often inept investigators; neither mode ever overrides, or compromises, the other. In three brief, consecutive scenes, we watch as Detective Park (Song Kang-ho) has sex with his wife (“I think it fell out,” he tells her, as she straddles atop him), gets a shot in the ass, and has his ears cleaned out. Though these early scenes aren’t necessarily typical of the film’s narrative approach, which, otherwise, adheres mainly to the case at hand, they are typical of Bong’s strikingly droll deadpan style.

"Um, I think we'd have better luck recognizing the photograph if you turned it around so we could see the guy's face..."

Park is aided in his investigation by his volatile partner, Jo, (the “bad cop” of the duo) and Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), the archetypal big-city cop, sent from Seoul to help the small-town police force crack their troubling case. Even outside this familiar paradigm there are discernible echoes of American pop-cult staples, from Dragnet to the afore-referenced The Silence of the Lambs to Fargo, perhaps the movie Memories most distinctly called to mind for me. Watching these rural cops bumble their way through a case that’s clearly a far cry from what they’re accustomed to dealing with, I couldn’t help but picture Frances McDormand’s pregnant Marge Gunderston, trudging her way through deep Minnesota snow and, upon glimpsing the crime scene, remarking, “I think I’m gonna barf.”

Ultimately, however, these echoes remain, at most, fond points of homage, due largely to Bong’s economic inclusion of rich, if subtle, ethnographic detail. A general sense of sociopolitical disquiet pervades the movie’s margins, contributing to Bong’s melancholic mood and restless rhythms, but also serving as an important reminder that, while the formula may be fluid, these events and characters are very much a product of a particular time and place.

By: Josh Timmermann
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