There’s been an ignition of interest this year surrounding the films of Bong Joon-ho, this appetite has been cooled-down somewhat by the world events unfolding all around us in recent months, but it seemed like a turning point when he took this years Oscars by storm.
I had floated the idea around that time that his success might see a breakthrough in foreign-language films being embraced in English-speaking territories, such was the way that the US & UK took to Parasite. It can be argued that no Asian film has created that much buzz in the Western world since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and arguably not even then.
Like many others, I was one such reviewer who found myself enamoured with Parasite and as a result, have made an effort to watch Bong’s back catalogue, indeed, I have catalogued my views on the ones I have subsequently seen on this very site.
But one release evaded my attempts for most of this year, his second directorial effort Memories of Murder.
At the time of its release, it barely had a profile outside of Asia, and such the demand didn’t previously exist for its wide release. There was a DVD version in the West, but it’s extremely hard to come by, or expensive, so it made sense to give his breakthrough release further big-screen exposure after his subsequent successes.
Based off a real-life serial killer case in a small Korean province, the film follows the three detectives working the case. Two of which are hard-nosed rural cops who like to beat confessions out of suspects and the other is a more savvy city cop brought in from Seoul to help out. Their styles and personalities clash, but eventually, they start to piece together the mystery.
Memories of Murder starts with a difficult case to adapt, as, at the time of its release*, the real-life murders this film is based on were unsolved. Making this a serial killer mystery with no conclusive ending. The ‘big reveal’ moment of a whodunit can’t happen, and on one hand, that’s a brave choice to lean into that fact, but it can also lead to an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Whatever you get out of the films ending will depend entirely on your tastes. For those who like their stories to have a definitive ending, this probably won’t be the movie for you, but if you have a tolerance for an ambiguous ending, then you might get some satisfaction from the conclusion.
The film as a whole shares a lot of DNA with a few other Bong films. It has a subplot within it that’s similar to Mother, even down to some of the scenes being more or less carbon copies of each other. I’m imagining this was done as a homage in Mother to this film, his first big success in his home country, I would like to think it wasn’t just lazy recycling of ideas because he has shown that he’s above that, and as I say, it’s a subplot within the main narrative, it isn’t a key part, per se.
Then there’s also the lead actor Song Kang-ho, whom you may recognise from both Snowpiercer and Parasite, in the latter he played the father of the lower-class family, Kim Ki-taek.
Som comparisons with his later work are rife, but how does it measure up? Well, of all the films of Bong Joon-ho’s I’ve watched, this is the one I’ve connected with the least. It is obvious that he has something special about him, but he’s very much still finding his feet.
It could also be a case of this film was never intended to have the mass-market appeal of his later films. As I say, this film was largely unknown outside of Korea, so it stands to reason that he made a film that makes sense in that culture, that may not translate well with Western audiences. This feels like the most ‘foreign’ of his films, obviously, I know they are all foreign films, but this feels like it’s on a different cultural wavelength more than any of his other films I’ve watched, including Mother and that was fairly deeply entrenched in Korean society also, but still understandable to an outsider in ways that Memories of Murder isn’t.
The characters are erratic and unpleasant, and granted we are supposed to feel this way about a few of them, but I didn’t buy into the main detective’s change of character towards the end. The really interesting character arc belonged to Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) the city cop whose experiences in the countryside change him gradually until he becomes just like the brash cops he looked down his nose at earlier in the film, it’s the films best use of character development because it happens organically, through his frustration with the case, and his colleagues’ behaviour.
All these things being said, it is still a very well-made film. It shows flashes of the brilliance we now know Bong is capable of, but this seems like he was still honing his skills as a filmmaker. The subject matter is solid if handicapped by a lack of credible conclusion, and the direction and performances are stellar as usual, it just doesn’t connect with me as his other films have. Some of that I feel is down to the cultural differences, but some of it is also down to the film.
It has some incredibly strong moments, the best of these being a few extremely tense scenes where we observe the killer stalk his victim, on one memorable occasion popping up as a blur in the background as he advances, the film comes alive when it embraces these aspects, as well as delving into the investigation itself, which I felt they could have done more with, as opposed to spotlighting the violent detective and his habit of beating suspects, which happens one too many times for my liking.
In conclusion, then, I’m glad I have now seen this film, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to watch it again. Hints of the director’s brilliance are visible but obscured by unlikeable characters and a disarming habit of messing up the narrative with subplots that are never resolved. The evidence is here that Bong Joon-ho will become the director we now know him to be, but he wasn’t quite there at this time.
*In a twist of fate, just as Parasite was about to release, the murderer responsible confessed to the killings. However, he can’t be charged for them because Korea’s statute of limitations when the crimes occurred stood at 15 years. He was, however, already serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister-in-law.