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Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

      Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder is, on its surface at least, a fairly standard real-life serial killer drama that follows a trio of Korean detectives as they attempt to track down a murderer over the course of three years. Typical of the genre, there's a good-cop / bad-cop sensibility at work and a series of frustrating red herrings, but most of this movie’s pleasures don't have that much to do with its genre. For example, even though many of the details in the movie’s script are too schematic to have been lifted from reality, there’s a great sense of time and place that reverberates throughout. Scenes showing air raid drills and focusing on pop songs surely must resonate with a Korean audience and give this story, which essentially details the gradual corruption of a small farm town, a real sense of time and place. When the police find a photo album found in one suspect’s apartment, it seems apparent that as much as it’s concerned with “murder”, the film is occupied with “memory”. As a character study and a portrait of a town’s gradual corruption, the film is surprisingly rich, as well. An early attempt by the police, who have a reputation among the populace for brutality and evidence tampering, to pin the crime on a retarded local makes it tough for the audience to accept the morality behind their actions in the future.


    Near the start of the film, a city cop volunteers to help the small-town policemen, who seem to be in over their heads. An escalating series of perversions hidden behind the town’s placid exterior, seem to color his facile conception of country life, and the uncertainties that he discovers in the facts of the case destroy his notions of justice. The officer in charge of the small town’s investigation is somewhat corrupt from the get-go, but is frustrated when his strong-arming doesn’t get him his man. The movie’s abundant comic scenes do a great job of illustrating how, over the course of a long investigation, the distinctive personalities and sensibilities of the two lead characters began to blur. All the way through the film, the focus remains on the police officers, with the murderer remaining frustratingly elusive throughout. The scene when we first finally see the man who is presumably murderer on screen is genuinely exciting, and it adds real urgency to the subsequent investigative sequences.  Though it's never really gory, there are gross-out moments throughout Memories of Murder (some vomiting, an amputation, a train accident, etc…) that exhibit that typically Korean flair for the disgusting. Visually the movie is rather sophisticated, with compositions that often feature action on multiple planes and a tendency toward imagery that mixes outright poeticism with a queasy proximity to death. A coda, set in the present, comes up slightly short of being chilling, but otherwise, Memories of Murder offers a ruminative and affecting approach to a genre not known for its emotional content.




Jeremy Heilman