Bong Joon-ho’s impeccable thriller blends tragedy and black comedy
Just over a year ago, Bong Joon-ho celebrated at the Oscars, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film. To the #BongHive, it was both deserved and unsurprising, a collective that had long appreciated the auteur’s output over two decades prior to Parasite. As expected, his win opened up a new audience, who leaped over the “one inch-tall barrier of subtitles”to seek out his earlier work. Studios and distributors graciously indulged, with his second feature Memories of Murder garnering the most attention, seeing a re-release by Neon, and addition to the Criterion Collection.
In his breakthrough second feature, Bong Joon Ho explodes the conventions of the policier with thrillingly subversive, genre-defying results. Based on the true story of a string of serial killings that rocked a rural community in the 1980s, Memories of Murder stars New Korean Cinema icon Song Kang Ho as the local officer who reluctantly joins forces with a seasoned Seoul detective (Kim Sang Kyung) to investigate the crimes — leading each man on a wrenching, years long odyssey of failure and frustration that will drive him to the existential edge. Combining a gripping procedural with a vivid social portrait of the everyday absurdity of life under military rule, Bong fashions a haunting journey into ever-deepening darkness that begins as a black-comic satire and ends as a soul-shattering encounter with the abyss.
Memories of Murder begins in 1986, with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a ditch on the outskirts of the rural village of Hwaseong. Detective Park (Song Kang-Ho, Parasite), a man who relies on his instinct to judge people and solve cases, along with his partner, the physically brutal Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), are assigned to the case. Added to their number is Detective Suh (Kim Sang-Kyung, Tale of Cinema), a believer in methodology and documentation, brought in from Seoul to assist the investigation. A clash of styles and personalities ensues, and the killings not only increase in number, but evidence starts to suggest a ritualistic aspect to the crimes. Internal strife is mirrored as local community frustrations boil over, as it becomes apparent this trio, and the police force in general, are ill-equipped, to solve this case and end the murderous spree.
The film is inspired by the real-life 1980s activities of a serial killer in Hwaseong, South Korea. Ten women murdered over five years, in a case that remained unsolved until just a few years ago. Bong smartly juxtaposes this murder mystery aspect, and the conflicting approaches of the old guard (Park) and the new (Suh), against the era in which it unfolds. A time when South Korea underwent a political and social transition. The unrest in this small village pales in comparison to the more urban areas, but it underscores how this is a time of change. It also further explains the lack of local manpower for this case, as law officials are drawn away to deal with civil unrest.
Despite this layered commentary, and the engrossing mystery behind the killings and their perturbing aspects, Bong maintains a focus on the characters. Through his script, and their performances, they humanize these men that are at times eminently unlikable. Largely by showcasing their fallibility, and also their fears and frustrations as they begin to realize their natural approach and instincts are failing them, and they are powerless to stop this twisted person. The crimes themselves are perturbing. The approach and pshcye of the serial killer even more so, but like its spiritual cousins, Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, and Mindhunters, you feel an urge to know more and try to understand why this person is doing this.
Memories of Murder is a crime drama with real weight and texture, but balanced expertly with a darkly comedic streak. Almost Shakespearean in tone and construct, brooding and tragic, with moments of levity from its characters, often bordering on the farcical (the police chief and the ice bucket springs to mind). Bong delivers evocative and assured film-making that still packs a punch nearly 20 years later.
With the impending arrival of Memories of Murder on Criterion, buzz built online regarding the released stills that implied a different treatment of the films appearance. Sourced from a new 4K restoration, supervised by cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku and approved by director Bong Joon Ho, the film is darker, with a green and brown leaning palette. Darker, sacrificing depth and detail for a moodier look. Your personal taste may very, but this presentation does feel more in keeping with the murky narrative, rural setting, and oppressive tone. It also better reflects the feel and transition of the characters and country as the tale unfolds. The fine folk over at DVD Beaver have a nice side by side comparison, should you want to know more. Extra features are really well considered and complement the film well:
- Audio Commentary 1: featuring Bong Jong Ho, cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku, and production designer Ruy Sung Hee. A pretty laid back affair, but one which leans into the more technical and logistical aspects of filming
- Audio Commentary 2: Recorded by Bong Jong Ho and actors Song Kang Ho, Kim Sang Kyung, and Park No Shik. More personality imbued into this one, with the main actors on board the focus is unsurprisingly on shooting experiences, approaches to characters and the script, the tonal decisions made while shooting, etc
- Audio Commentary 3: A solo commentary from film critic Tony Rayns, who digs deep into the social commentary, the subtext, the tonal balance, and more, as well as putting the film into context against the backdrop of Bong’s overall body of work and as part of his progression as a filmmaker
- New interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro: The filmmaker gives an impassioned view on the film, offering some fine insights into the visual storytelling on display
- New interview with Bong about the real-life serial killer who inspired the film: Imagination vs. Reality. Bong, along with film critic (and translator) Darcy Paquet, talk about the serial killer Lee Chun-jae, whose crimes inspired Memories of Murder
- Documentary from 2004 on the making of the film: An exhaustive effort that runs nearly 200 minutes. Clips, interviews, behind the scenes footage, and more, make up a really in depth look at the whole project. Broken up into 8 chapters: 1. The Chase, 2. Casting and photography, 3. The cast, 4. Lighting and locations, 5. Design and effects, 6. The score, 7. Release, and 8. Credits
- Deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary by Bong: 7 scenes, the shortest being one minute, the longest being 5 minutes in length. The real bonus here is having a commentary to offer context
- New interview with film scholar Jeff Smith on the use of sound in Bong’s work: A nice addition to the release, one that underscores (no pun intended), how meticulous a filmmaker Bong is
- Incoherence, a 1994 student film by Bong, with a new introduction by the director: A new 4K restoration of the short that demonstrates how longstanding some of Bong’s predilections are, including black humor, offbeat tonal shifts, and social commentary
- Teaser, trailer, and TV spot: All in Korean with optional subtitles
- PLUS: An essay by critic and novelist Ed Park: Included in the liner booklet, which also includes details on the films restoration
- New cover by Greg Ruth
The Bottom Line
Memories of Murder showcases the Bong’s already impressive mastery of tone and commentary. A precise and incisive narrative, that is engrossing and unsettling in equal measure. A tragic portrait of flawed men, coming to face with their own fallibility, in the presence of evil. Criterion have put together a truly great package that deepens appreciation for this richly layered work.
Memories of Murder is available via Criterion from April 20th