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A True Crime Mystery to End Them All
Where to begin with Bong Joon Ho's murder mystery/police procedural about Korea's equivalent to America's Zodiac Killer? This film tells the true story of the serial rapist and murderer who terrorized the South Korean countryside, and those who pursued him. Each assault and murder more puzzling than the last, and with seemingly no evidence left behind, this province in Korea seems to have bumped shoulders with the perfect killer. But then, when the serial killer begins to develop a pattern, the detectives are on their way to breaking the case, but it proves far from easy. Memories of Murder features everything you could possibly want out of a true crime mystery/thriller, and a Bong Joon Ho film: comedy, drama, mystery, intrigue, corruption, scandal, controversy, humanity, and inhumanity. Oh, and not to mention: Song Kang-Ho.
The Bong Effect
Bong Joon Ho tells the true story with enough dramatic heft and the perfect amount of levity (the way only Bong Joon Ho can). What amazed me the most about the film is that this was made in 2003, and it was made expertly and with such precision that only an experienced filmmaker could; and this was one of Bong Joon Ho's first feature films. It felt like it was written and directed by someone who had already been at it for decades. The film is impeccably paced with reveals in the perfect places throughout the film, and the film leads you to believe finding any evidence let alone the killer is a hopeless cause throughout its entirety. Mysteries handled in the wrong way can lead you to easily predicting plot points, reveals, or "whodunit" - but this never feels that way for a second. Truth, often times, can be stranger than fiction. This film perfectly expresses that notion without ever feeling dramatized. The authenticity and grounded nature of the film is to be commended as I was always fully engrossed in the story.
Don't Trust the Headlines
Another noteworthy aspect of the film was its bravery in exploring the deep-seeded corruption within the outfit. The local police in the story were always quick to find the killer, no matter if they were innocent or guilty. So long as the headline read that the killer was safely in custody, they didn't care. This may seem like a worn out trope in crime films, but the way that Bong portrays the police and their desperation in finding anyone who bears even a shred of guilt, it feels true to the characters and the situation - and wholly believable. There is a sequence in which they re-enact one of the crimes and crime scenes and the filmmaking on display is mesmerizing. It's clear that Bong Joon Ho's craft, even early on in his career, was that of a professional and an awards contender (winner). The simple fact that they were so willing to pin the crimes on seemingly innocent scapegoats is not something that we are unfamiliar with, but is profoundly sad when real lives were at stake. These detectives were so hopelessly desperate to get at the truth, that they were willing to create their own. Appearances were important to these men - and cases like this are never what they seem. I loved Bong Joon Ho's conviction and how unafraid he was to get at the gritty details of the horrible truth the lie within this tragic story.
The Inevitable Comparison
I've already alluded to it, but the inevitable comparison will be made to David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). The connection is clear when you watch both films, especially close together. Similarly, both killers were never found to be guilty, even if they were found. The string of murders in the small South Korean province had haunted its people for decades, just as the Zodiac Killer dominated headlines and horrified the general American consciousness of that time period and beyond. The primary difference is that the Korean case was riddled with corruption and false narratives whereas the Zodiac Killer was conspiracy laden and much of the narrative had to be conjecture even with trace amounts of evidence. Another notable difference is that the serial rapist and murderer recently confessed to his crimes, whereas the man believed to be the Zodiac Killer died before he could see any justice brought to him.
As stated, the craft on display is mesmerizing considering how early in Bong's career he wrote and directed this film. The screenplay's best foot forward was the authenticity of the story. Although the overarching narrative was overwhelmingly cynical, Bong still gave us levity in certain moments and a moral compass with the detective character from Seoul. The screenplay is also perfectly structured and so well paced. The film does not move at a break neck pace, nor does it move too slowly to bore the audience. The direction is masterful as scenes play out so genuinely and realistically. The acting on display is excellent across the board with no standouts or slouches, period. The cinematography is probably what impressed me the most. The look and feel is so of its time and is so unbelievably gorgeous, while also cold and desolate. I love how Bong frames everything and the camera movements are so smooth and calculated. The film overall is so well made that you hardly notice at times due to the fact that Bong envelops you in the story so effectively and effortlessly.
*One of My Favorite Shots in Cinematic History*
As a whole, Memories of Murder includes everything I want and look for in a true crime story. Bong Joon Ho's impeccable craft only accent how amazing the true story itself is. It's easy to see how David Fincher's Zodiac could be influenced by this expertly made murder mystery/crime procedural. Bong Joon Ho solidified himself as one of the truly great writer/directors before anyone even knew his name, and even longer before he would go on to win several historic Oscars for his masterpiece Parasite last year. I believe that this is a remarkable albeit tragic story that was perfectly told by a landmark filmmaker that is to be commended for handling such a delicate story with a deft hand.
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Memories of Murder is currently in a (very) limited theatrical release, but is available digitally and will eventually have a Criterion release.