One of the best things about the raging success of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is the potential knock on effect it might have. People who would never ordinarily pay their money to see a subtitled film were doing so, as the critical acclaim drove Parasite into mainstream chain cinemas. This was significant, as such pictures are usually reserved for releases in art house theatres, and although the audiences who usually see them are loyal, they often come in significantly smaller quantities. As an unfortunate but understandable consequence, there can be difficulties associated with getting the right funding to bring international features to Western audiences, on the basis that the people who make the commercial decisions have the “one inch barrier of subtitles” in the back of their minds when sanctioning off projects. Memories of Murder is a reason why the above circumstances are a real shame. While there are always occasions when directors make their best films early on, Bong Joon Ho’s mystery crime thriller is an example of how many films crawl so others can walk.
Set in 1986 South Korea, two detectives are investigating the rape and murder of two women in the farmland area of Hwaseong in Gyeonggi Province. Immediately, we can tell that their efforts are plagued by a number of setbacks. A lack of forensic technology, sparse evidence, and above all, their own incompetence. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho), is assisted by Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), and both are completely overwhelmed by the nature and scale of the crimes that confront them. This is portrayed in a manner that makes it difficult to empathise with our protagonists, including a worrying tendency for detective Cho to beat and torment suspects. Struggling to cope with the horrific realities of South Korea’s first serial killings, the policeman become desperate to catch the killer, even if it means gerrymandering ethical lines and choosing soft targets to contrive fictitious and exaggerated evidence. Gradually, their desperation becomes our desperation. While the policemen eventually begin to mature into their roles, their task of hunting down the allusive murder becomes ever complex, and what appear to be promising leads only prolong frustrations and further confound this era defining game of cat and mouse.
Memories of Murder illustrates director Bong Joon Ho’s tendency to litter his filmography with consistent themes. One of these themes is the incompetence and ignorance of authority, in particular the police. Here, this point is made again, but in a strangely pitiful way. As the film goes on, we get the sense that the detectives really just want to catch the killer, but at the same time they’re trying to win over our affections. To do so, the audience needs to suspend the sheer disbelief and anger that is likely felt when witnessing how the stupidity of the policemen are used to torment and bully vulnerable people by making suspects out of thin air. Whether or not the audience will ultimately forgive this by the time the final act comes round is completely dependent on our own interpretation, but the film gives important context that perhaps explains the absurd ways in which the police are attempting to confront the circumstances. The point is clearly made that the whole situation is completely unprecedented. The arrival of a detective from Seoul implies the classism that puts the rural detectives in a marginalised and underfunded position, compared to the wealthier and more educated urban districts of the burgeoning capital. The need to send off evidence to the United States because the forensic technology needed to identify DNA doesn’t even exist in South Korea yet. All of this grounds the moral ambiguity in a socio-economic context that helps us understand why, especially when looking back retrospectively, the events on screen are so out of the ordinary.
Whether or not you empathise with the protagonists, it’s difficult not to be taken in by the hauntingly beautiful execution of Memories of Murder. Much like Parasite, the film doesn’t feel like it owes the audiences any soft landings, and tells the story as it is. Sometimes, there is no happy prognosis, and potential for a happy ending is overpowered by the grim realities of humanity. The majestic score by Taro Iwashiro strikes an unparalleled balance between poignancy and lingering terror, which at this point should come as no surprise in a Bong Joon Ho film. The acting, while slightly hammed up on occasions, is convincing, and succeeds in its injection of comedic relief when necessary. All of this is done in a manner which, insofar as is possible for this type of dark subject matter, maintains respect for the actual events on which the film is based. Quentin Tarantino once quoted this as his favourite movie of 2003. While even that name drop might not have garnered much Western attention at the time, you can only hope that the success of Parasite might cause new audiences to dig up this dark gem of Bong Joon Ho’s formative years. It had been screening at art house cinemas in Dublin, but that’s been paused while current restrictions continue in the capital. If the lights come back on, or if you can stream it, do so. Only then will you truly be able to pick up the clues that collectively help explain the director’s Oscar win in 2020.