Patron Pick – Memories of Murder

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Memories of Murder (2003)
Written by Bong Joon-ho & Shim Sung-bo
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

The serial killer phenomenon has been around for a long time but only occurred in South Korea for the first time in the mid-1980s. In 1996, Korean playwright Kim Kwang-rim wrote Come to See Me, loosely based on these first killings where 10 women & girls had their lives taken by the same person. Director Bong Joon-ho co-wrote the film adaptation, which touches on the actual events but dramatizes most of its elements. This would be Bong’s more prominent debut after writing & directing the indie feature Barking Dogs Never Bite three years prior. The film would be released in the heart of what film historians now call New Korean Cinema, an explosion of movies from South Korea that exhibited filmmakers with incredible technical skills but also nuanced, complex writing & characterization. While a director like Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Decision to Leave) is known for gorgeously choreographed stylized violence, Bong is a director whose trademark (at least in my opinion) is his blend of horrific story beats and weirdly comforting dark comedy. It’s a delicate balance, but his movies always seem to pull it off.

In October 1986, two women were found murdered on the outskirts of a small town. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) gets quickly overwhelmed as he does not deal with these crimes in his rural area. The evidence is improperly collected, the department doesn’t have the technology to process evidence, and he & his colleagues make intentional mistakes while also skirting the rules. One of the victims was known to be followed around town by Baek Kwong-ho, a mentally challenged young man. Baek gets brought in and physically beaten to secure a confession. 

Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-yung), a detective from Seoul, enters this chaos. Seo has been formally trained in more modern investigation methods and clashes with Park and his colleagues when he wants to go back over everything before going forward with the Baek accusation. Things unnoticed by the rural cops suddenly snap into focus: the murders always happen on rainy nights, the women are all wearing something red, and the same obscure song is requested from a caller to a local radio station every night before a murder occurs. Everything eventually points to Hyeon-gyu, a clerk at a gypsum factory. However, the detectives are missing crucial pieces that keep them from being able to pin the suspect down.

Memories of Murder is a haunting film in that the resolution is left open-ended. No one suspect is ever determined, and so the investigators eventually find all their work goes nowhere. Not that they are good people. They causally engage in the beating of Baek, a disabled person, without much guilt. We see them busting up a student protest and not holding back on the brutality. During this period, South Korea’s president, Chun Doo-hwan, was an authoritarian who trained in the United States during his military service in the 1950s. In the United States, Chun specialized in guerilla tactics & psychological warfare. Chun took part in the May 16 coup of 1961, where the democratically elected president of South Korea was overthrown by military dictator Park Chung-hee which would lead to a succession of unelected leaders & strongmen terrorizing the country. 

When we hear about the Koreas in the news in the West, you’ll never likely hear much about this. Instead, it will be focused on North Korea’s problems. While you often hear about Tiananmen Square when American news outlets want to talk about brutal oppression in East Asia, it’s doubtful you’d hear these same people mention the June Democratic Struggle of 1987 in South Korea. However, these things are at the forefront of Bong Joon-ho’s memories. He was a student during this time and participated in demonstrations against Chun’s regime. In Memories of Murder, he’s telling a story about the same kind of cops that would beat him and his friends at university. Bong isn’t hesitant to show how inept policing is at solving crime. The detectives are pressured by their boss, the media, and the public to solve the murders quickly. It’s easiest to pin them on someone already seen as an outsider and “not like the rest of us.” I wish I could say this was something you only read about in stories, but sadly that’s not true. 

The movie’s opening reminds me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a procession of pastoral, warm “traditional” images. Children playing. Farmers at work. The camera takes in the verdant landscape. Detective Park looks happy, comfortable. Then he leans down, looks into the drainage pipe he’s here to investigate, and sees the body he was told about. Hearing about the murder was one thing; that didn’t phase him. But now, to be up close and see the victim lying there, disposed of like trash. We can hear the children playing in the background. The camera shows them playing with discarded articles of clothing. Some quick mental math, and we, plus Park, know these are the victim’s. 

Park and his colleagues become overwhelmed by the pressure of the case and the up-close confrontation with genuine evil. Their response is evil as well. They want to be done with this, it turns their stomachs, so they seek to find someone to blame. Like a band-aid, ripped off fast. While Bong makes the film feel chaotic, it’s not; every single scene & shot is so precise and perfect. I was often reminded of David Fincher’s Zodiac while rewatching Memories of Murder. Both films focus on investigators who struggle to piece together the clues of violent crimes that sicken them. Both films are about these men ultimately failing. I would argue that Memories’ ending hits far stronger than Zodiac. 

However, Zodiac has oddly become a comfort movie for me since I first saw it. It was the film I watched on the plane ride across the Atlantic when we moved to The Netherlands. But Bong presents something irrefutably perfect in Memories, a true crime story that doesn’t attempt to canonize the police. They are incompetent to the point that more women die who don’t have to. In the end, we are like Park, left in stunned silence at the enormity of our failure & at the ability of seemingly ordinary people to do extraordinarily evil things.


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