I first saw Bong Joon-ho's The Host in 2008 — a full two years after its release. I remember that I was impressed by it; but, at the same time, I’m not the biggest fan of monster movies. Two years ago I was turned on to the YouTube channel Every Frame A Painting. I watched all of Tony Zhou's episodes multiple times. This is where I first heard of Bong Joon-ho's second film, 2003's Memories of Murder. When I saw it was playing all week at IFC Center in New York City, I had to see it for myself in a theater. I'm so glad I went. If you are a fan of Korean cinema, murder mysteries or thrillers, I strongly encourage you not to miss it.
I watch a lot of Asian films, mostly horror, and am well aware that Korea has been the pinnacle of great cinema since the early 2000s. I arrived early at the theater and happened to be sitting across the isle from a Korean woman. We started talking and she informed me that this film came from a play about a real murder case that took place in 1980's Korea. She told me that it had been a successful play and that the play had really come about as a collaborative effort between the director and the actors who contributed equally to its creation. She had never seen the film, but had seen the play and wondered just how the director would translate such a personal artistic collaboration created for the stage to a film. This now seems logical that the director shot this film in the ensemble style that Tony Zhou dedicates an entire episode to in his Youtube show, Every Frame A Painting.
If I say too much, I am afraid I will spoil the film. Most people have read that it has comparisons to David Fincher's Zodiac. That is kind of true —mostly in one portion of the film (which I can't reveal here) — but I think it bares an even greater comparison to Citizen X, a movie made for HBO in the 1990s about Russia's first serial killer. In Citizen X our detective/forensics hero must fight against the communist system of Russia as the body count mounts and the government is determined to deny that they have a serial killer on their hands. Such a thing is associated with "western decadence" and NOT communist Russia. An enormous number of young women, and sometimes men, will die because of government posturing. Citizen X is also a true story about Russia's first (official) serial killer.
The detectives in Memories of Murder have hurdles to overcome that are similar to the protagonist in Citizen X ( a film I also highly recommend if you can find it ). The first detectives on the case in Memories of Murder think they know what they are doing because they've watched a lot of detective shows. They have had no real training in navigating a crime scene, and they lack the manpower and the resources to collect and analyze evidence for a quick arrest. In the first half of the film Detective Park thinks they can solve the case fairly easily - they even take a premature "we caught the killer" photo- but they have no idea how difficult the case really is. A new cop is assigned to their ranks. He does have some expertise, but even he is having trouble overcoming the lack of professional help and starts to realize that he is in way over his head. As the case goes on, all of the officers begin to come together to solve the case, but they also start to show signs of stress and trauma. People are quick to blame the police for cases that aren't instantly solved, but sometimes it feels like evil is outwitting the law no matter how hard these cops try. After all, they are only human and they want to catch this guy and bring an end to the day when another girl dies because they failed to catch the killer. It's this aspect of the film that tortures the audience as much as it does the men. And I believe it's also a big part of what the film is about.
In the opening scene, Detective Park finds the first body. A young boy insists on following him and mimicking everything he says and does. This might be a metaphor because, in the first part of the film, Detective Park is very much like a kid playing detective; and, by the end of the film, that innocence is gone and replaced by pain and haunting memories. Park states several times during the film that he knows who is a killer just by looking into his eyes. How many of us think we can recognize who is good and who is not by looking into someone’s eyes? To some degree, we all believe we know who the bad guys are; but when the chips are down, it just isn't that simple. And for these cops, it is a harsh lesson to learn.
Sadly, I never got to ask the woman in the seat across from me what she thought of the film version of Memories of Murder. When it ended I couldn't move for several minutes.
Beautifully photographed and masterfully directed by Bong Joon-Ho, this film is confident and surprisingly haunting. You will think about Memories of Murder for a long time after you've left the theater.
Enjoy Tony Zhou's episode of ensemble staging featuring Memories of Murder in the clip below. Any designer or visual storyteller can learn a lot from his thoughts on crafting a film.
Currently playing at IFC Center in New York City through August 31, it is a definite must see for fans of this genre.