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10/16/2020 • 4 min read
We all saw PARASITE, which swept the festival scene last year before winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. For some audiences, that was a grand introduction to the movies of director Bong Joon-ho and his frequent collaborator, actors Song Kang-ho. But Bong has been making amazing cinema for 20 years, beginning with his first movie, the blackly comic satire BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE.
Maybe you’ve seen some of Bong's other great movies, like SNOWPIERCER, or OKJA. But his first true masterpiece, MEMORIES OF MURDER, has been away from movie screens for a long time. Now it is getting a new limited release. After the success of PARASITE, this one’s too good not to bring back. If you like police procedurals and dark thrillers like David Fincher's ZODIAC or SEVEN, this one is for you.
In MEMORIES OF MURDER, a series of brutal murders takes place in a small Korean town where violence is largely foreign. Four cops investigate. One, Seo, is an excellent detective; two, including local authority Park, are pretty mediocre; one is almost totally worthless.
Park and Seo's mismatched methods are at the center of the movie. The pragmatic and accomplished Seo comes from Seoul and looks to evidence and facts to discover suspects. His small-town counterpart Park relies on intuition and assumption and tends to make the evidence fit whichever suspect he likes most. If someone doesn't confess, they will after a few days of getting knocked around by Park's unimaginative lackey, Cho.
It doesn’t quite sound like a typical buddy cop comedy, and yet, for a while at least, that’s mostly what MEMORIES OF MURDER ends up being. As fans of PARASITE have already discovered, Bong Joon-ho has a way of mixing tones that make easy categorization difficult. MEMORIES OF MURDER is a cop movie through and through. It’s also really funny, as Bong presents the intense but meandering investigation through a lens that reveals its most absurd aspects. As the story moves along, it becomes terrifying — and marked by persistent sadness. This movie is an emotional buffet.
PARASITE fans will instantly recognize Song Kang-ho as the small-town detective, Park Doo-man. Park may not be a good cop, but MEMORIES OF MURDER is his story. Song has an "everyman" quality that has given him a high profile in Korean cinema. Over the years, Bong Joon-ho has cast him frequently, but this is their first collaboration. (Another major South Korean director, Park Chan-wook, has also leaned on Song, in films like SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and JOINT SECURITY AREA.)
American audiences will be less familiar with the film’s second star, Kim Sang-kyung, who plays the hotshot cop Seo Tae-yoon. Seo begins the film as a voice of reason and contrasts with Park's flailing efforts to find the killer. But as the film progresses, Seo is consumed by his obsession with the case. His cool facade unravels, as his adherence to above-the-board policing methods falters. Kim Sang-kyung plays all this perfectly. Like David Fincher's ZODIAC, made several years after MEMORIES OF MURDER was released, this movie is often focused on the failures of government systems as individual weaknesses derail well-meaning policy.
*No spoilers, we promise!* After a rollercoaster ride of investigative mistakes and dead ends, MEMORIES OF MURDER builds to an ending that will quietly stick with you. The film is based on a true story, which has had some interesting developments since the film came out. (Definitely hit up Wikipedia and get caught up after you see the movie.) It's the sort of tale that leads to exactly the sort of obsession that ensnares the cops in the movie.
For all these reasons and more that we can't specify without giving too much away, MEMORIES OF MURDER has become a legit cinema classic. To see it on the big screen is a huge opportunity you don’t want to miss. Every feeling is amplified, and even the way Bong Joon-ho shoots elements like long grass and farm crops swaying in the wind is beautiful and haunting. With the success of PARASITE, the time is ripe to discover all of the director's films. This early masterpiece is a perfect starting point — and if you've seen some of his other movies, it is still likely to feel like a true discovery. It’s an entertaining, effective, and disturbing cop drama that you aren't likely to forget.
All images courtesy of NEON.
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