Bong Joon Ho’s 'Memories of Murder' Is a Film for Our Moment

Bong Joon Ho’s 'Memories of Murder' Is a Film for Our Moment
Photo Credit: Agent M
What you need to know

Bong Joon-ho's 'Memories of Murder' will be rereleased in Taiwan on June 12. It couldn't have arrived at a more fitting time.

Widespread protests in the United States against police brutality have reverberated around the world, with solidarity marches from London to Beijing. Trust in government, already low in many places where Covid-19 responses have been botched, has eroded in the U.S. Memories of Murder (2003), director Bong Joon Ho’s second feature, set to be re-released in Taiwan on June 12, is a movie for the moment.

With the Oscar-winning Parasite still fresh in mind, audiences will recognize the star Song Kang-ho, who played the father of the Kim family in Parasite.

In Memories, Song portrays rural police detective Park Doo-man, who is investigating a series of rape-murders. Taking place in 1986, under martial law at the twilight of the Fifth Republic of Korea, the film recounts the notorious case of a serial rapist-killer with close attention to historical detail. 

Park and his hotheaded partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) care more about closing the case and garnering good publicity than catching the right guy. They torture their suspects to extract false confessions.

True to Bong’s style, the grotesque proceedings are infused with dark humor. The beatings are rendered in matter-of-fact slapstick, with Park and Cho partial to spontaneous drop-kicks. Police brutality is just another absurd fact of life under a de facto military dictatorship.

The investigation turns professional when they are joined by Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung), a colleague from Seoul. Seo methodically demonstrates the innocence of the suspects, provoking class resentment in Park. When Seo turns up actual clues, the film morphs into a proper psychological thriller, recalling the twisted Se7en (1995).

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Photo Credit: Agent M

The shot compositions, together with Kim Sun-min’s editing and Tarô Iwashiro’s unobtrusive music, conjure tension out of thin air. And Kim Hyung-ku’s rainy nighttime cinematography contrasts strongly with the natural daylight in the first half of the film.

The cartoonish and bumbling Park is now willing to put in the work if it could lead to the culprit. But each clue is destroyed or otherwise kept just out of reach, and the frustration palpably mounts as women keep dying. Eventually, death comes for a woman the detectives care about personally.

Scene after scene, we look on as Park or Seo arrive a second too late, fail to keep key evidence intact, or — in the most melodramatic instance — climb a ravine too slowly to prevent an eyewitness from dying right before his eyes. Many of these by-a-hair delays could have been avoided if bystanders were willing to cooperate with the investigation. But who dares trust a cop who tortures innocents?

This is where we start to see Bong’s social criticism. Lack of trust in the police hampers the investigation, to the extent that villagers sometimes brawl with the detectives. The local government is unable to enforce a curfew before another impending rape-murder, because all extra manpower has been deployed to suppress pro-democracy protests. And the most heart-wrenching scene depicts a rape-murder, this time during a politically motivated civil defense blackout drill. We see house windows in the background darkening one by one, each turned-off light marking one more lost hope.

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Photo Credit: Agent M

With protests and riots in full swing, it’s worth remembering that the bedrock of a stable political community is the health and safety of its people. This is the moral conviction that forges a coherent film out of the disparate tones and genres present in Memories, and that lends credibility and empathy to the uniformly outstanding performances.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Memories was well-received upon initial release. 2003 saw both the first, heady days of the hopeful Roh Moo-hyun administration in Korea, and incredulity that the U.S. (and a few other countries) had actually invaded a functioning sovereign state on the flimsiest of evidence later revealed to be false. Debates raged about governance and accountability, abuse and reform, and the film captured that zeitgeist in the same way that Parasite reflects current anxieties over plutocracy and inequality.

Like Bong’s other films, the perfectly paced Memories doesn’t arrive at a happy ending. But real life had a surprise in store. Late last year, Lee Choon-jae confessed to the unsolved rape-murders that the film revolves around, among other crimes; he’s already serving a life sentence for the rape-murder of his sister-in-law. The police were driven to keep investigating after the statute of limitations passed, in part, because of the continued popularity of Memories.

Here’s hoping that the film will help keep our governments honest, too.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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