Criterion Prediction #109: Memories of Murder, by Alexander Miller
Title: Memories of Murder
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Song Jae-ho
Synopsis: Based on the true story of the Hwaseong Serial Killings, Memories of Murder follows a provincial detective (Song Kang-ho) and his partner (Kim Roi-ha) as they are overwhelmed by a double homicide investigation.
They accept assistance from a detective from the capital, and the three contrasting individuals embark on what would be an epic investigation of South Korea’s first documented serial killer.
Critique: While Bong Joon-ho’s directorial career is at an interesting crossroads with his last two English language features garnering international acclaim, in some ways, it doesn’t matter, because we have Memories of Murder. Bong Joon-ho has the incredible ability to take something as dark as the fact-based account of tracking a serial killer and inoculate the narrative with a healthy dose of humor and walk away with a stronger picture for doing so. Memories of Murder is an intense thriller, made more so given that it’s inspired by actual events; and the length and scope of the film whips by with pitch-black humor and dedicated performances from Bong Joon-ho regulars Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, and Kim Roe-ha as the three detectives. There’s seldom ever a weak link in the director’s body of work as he instinctively finds powerful actors and has the foresight to keep them in rotation. As usual, Song Kang-ho dominates the screen; his physicality and demeanor give the impression he’s South Korea’s answer to Gerard Depardieu. When detective Park (Kang-ho) bullies suspects and witnesses he’s naturally intimidating, but when his lunkhead-with-a-heart-of-gold qualities shine through it’s remarkably genuine and humane.
I was lucky enough to see Memories of Murder prior to David Fincher’s Zodiac, and the two are very similar. That’s not to disparage Fincher’s film (which is easily one of his best), but the rhythm, tone, and overall atmosphere feel synchronized. Whether it’s by influence, design, or coincidence, these films seem to exist in a continuous timeline where they are tethered to one another.
Bong Joon-ho is a director with great instincts. He doesn’t get lost in defining himself as a stylist, nor is he bogged down by aesthetics. He applies playful idiosyncrasies to the method of exploring a genre and, with Memories of Murder, the end product is one of the best modern thrillers of the 21st century.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: 2003 was a breakout year for South Korean cinema with Memories of Murder, Oldboy, and the batshit sci-fi Save the Green Planet. When movies like Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance films got to the states, they were distributed by Tartan Asian Extreme, giving them – or rather perpetuating – a niche appeal.
It feels like directors like Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Ki-duk were lumped in with more extreme horror/exploitation fare. Not that I don’t love Japanese directors like Takashi Miike or Sion Sono, but it would be a huge leap forward for South Korean cinema if we saw titles from premier filmmakers in the Criterion Collection. Memories of Murder feels like a great starting point; it doesn’t have the reputation and popularity of The Host, so rights wouldn’t be too much of an issue, and it’s not as peculiar as the director’s debut Barking Dogs Never Bite – which is a small treasure if you’re up for it.