A potent mix of suspense and mystery, Bong Joon-ho’s serial-killer masterpiece gets under your skin.
Dir. Bong Joon-ho
2003 | South Korea | Crime/Drama/Mystery | 132 mins | 1.85:1 | Korean
M18 (passed clean) for mature theme and some disturbing scenes
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha
Plot: In a small Korean province in 1986, three detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: CJ Entertainment
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on DVD – first published 6 Feb 2013)
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 (2009), 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.
“There’s a reason people say I have a shaman’s eyes.”
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.
Quentin Tarantino named “Memories of Murder”, along with Bong’s “The Host”, as one of his Top 20 favourite movies since 1992.
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.