Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Memories of Murder’ Shows the Beginnings of his Satirical Mastery

A still from 'Memories of Murder'. Park Doo-man (Song Kang Ho) is shown in close-up sitting in a cornfield. He is staring directly at the camera with a vacant, yet slightly confused expression. He wears a white shirt, is clean shaven, in his 30s/40s with dark had and dark eyes.
Curzon Artificial Eye

Memories of Murder was originally released in UK theatres in 2003 but has been near impossible to find over here since. Now, after the success of director Bong Joon Ho’s mind-bending satire Parasite, Curzon’s re-release of the South Korean filmmaker’s second feature in both cinemas and on Curzon’s own streaming service is bound to be met with further flurries of cinephiles. Newer audience members coming from the 2020 Best Picture Winner will be greeted with the familiar face of Bong’s long-time collaborator Song Kang Ho in the lead role (Memories was in fact their first time working together). And those already acquainted with Bong’s filmography will quickly be able to notice the fledgling roots of political and social commentary that has become the Oscar Winner’s calling card.

Set in a small town in rural South Korea, two women are found raped and murdered at the edge of a rice field. With the crime scene trampled and evidence thrown around between local kids, detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang Ho) just wants to get the case closed. Following some rather questionable reasoning and ignoring the objections of the hot-shot inspector from Seoul, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang Kyung), Park tries to put away the first conceivable suspect. But as more bodies are found, the reluctant partners realise the small-town murders are in fact the work of a more professional and forebodingly elusive serial killer, and their determination to find true justice becomes near overpowering.

Bong’s cinematic technique precedes him even in his early work but acknowledging that this film is partially based on a real string of assault and murders in the Hwaeseong province from the 80s makes it all the more chilling. At the time of production, the killer had yet to be discovered, leading to the iconic final shot of Sang Kang Ho staring directly into the camera — and, as director Bong believed that the guilty party would end up seeing the film, at the killer. (The fact the real murderer was only discovered in September 2019 (16 years after the film’s release) puts an extra perspective on the film’s conclusion that Bong couldn’t possibly have predicted).

Curzon Artificial Eye

But real-life inspiration aside, Memories of Murder may seem much like another one of those gritty crime dramas South Korea is known for on the surface. But we should all know by now that Bong stories are never just what they at first seem — to speak in a Parasite analogy, you have to go into the basement. The story isn’t as simple as the golden-bathed opening where a little kid seeing a clever detective come to investigate a terrible crime and put the perpetrator behind bars. Park might close cases, but he beats up suspects, fakes evidence, and asks leading questions to record a ‘confession’ to do it, all so he can get a pat on the back. The film is as much a critique of the all-too-familiar corruption and arrogance of the system, if a little gentler than the director’s more recent work, as it is a murder mystery.

In many ways, Memories is both a homage to old American cop dramas from the 80s, and a critique of them. Within the first ten minutes you’ve ticked the boxes for smoking iconography, the cop who can ‘read’ people, and wait a little longer and you’ll even get a boxy TV playing the opening theme of a corny detective drama. But when the small-town Korean detectives idolise the FBI, get wrapped up in exciting narratives over fact, and retain their own internal competition with the young inspector who’s been brought in to help them do their jobs, it becomes clear that the preconceived ideas of ‘how to solve a murder’ aren’t actually going to help you solve a murder. The West, albeit in its limited involvement, is a figure that dictates but doesn’t actually help; another thoughtful motif in Bong’s signature storytelling.

The film is an interesting parallel to Bong’s 2009 feature Mother (available on BFI player), which is likewise a crime thriller investigating the murder of a young girl — though this time the suspect’s mother is the only line of defence. (Bong’s filmography seems perfectly designed for double bills: Parasite and Snowpiercer; The Host and Okja; Memories of Murder and Mother). The opening acts are eerily similar in many ways (perhaps Bong was interested in exploring what would have happened had the string of events gone in a different direction to Memories), but it also calls into question the stakes, sanity and real responsibility these cops have to solve these terrible crimes who so often are set up to fall from the pedestal authority puts them on before they’ve even started.

Memories of Murder is in cinemas and available on Curzon Home Cinema now

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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