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Memories of Murder


It is with an utter lack of abashedness that I proclaim my great adoration of the Korean horror film, The Host ( Click here for our review) . Truly one of the greatest monster movies I’ve ever seen. Besides the appearance of the Steve the Monster (- check the forthcoming FilmStarrr section for the Bong Joon-Ho interview and “Steve” origin!), the toothy, tentacled, slimy beast brought to enthusiastic and athletic life by three different special effect houses; The Host differentiates itself through the deft and original direction of Mr. Bong Joon-Ho. The careful balance he achieves in directing his actors to great performances, giving us a believable and scary monster and a “hey, it could happen” plot, and an amazing slice of dark humour raises the film to something much more than your average monster movie. I believe we are lucky to see the beginnings of what will be a long and impressive career for this young director. 

It was with this momentum in mind that I sought out his earlier feature, 2003’s Memories of Murder. During my interview with the director, I asked him about the black comedy that permeates The Host and made me feel guilty at times for laughing out loud. Director Bong told me that it simply his natural sense of humour that he injected into his screenplays, and he told me that Memories of Murder also bore the same sense of dark comedy. Bong said Memories of Murder was available domestically on DVD through the kind offices of Palm Pictures, so I immediately snatched one up. 

Memories of Murder, like The Host, is loosely based on a real-life incident. In a small town in South Korea, in the days before the demilitarization, the body of a bound woman, raped and strangled is discovered in a small tunnel. It isn’t long before more cases of sexually assaulted and murdered women are found throughout town. In the mid-1980’s, these sorts of crimes simply didn’t happen in this part of the country, and the small, rural police force, headed by big man about town (- at least in his own mind) Detectives Park, and hair-trigger tempered Detective Cho, are woefully unprepared. There’s no procedure about careful forensics or preserving the crime scenes. At the first crime scene, children playing around the dead woman’s body run off with possible pieces of evidence. By the time the 2nd murder is discovered, clueless officials, bystanders, and even a tractor are all trampling (- or tumbling) through the area where the bound and gagged body is found, and it’s enraging and somehow bitterly hilarious. You can’t believe the officers don’t know better, but they simply don’t. 

The rampant ineptness of the country cops calls for the arrival of a more sophisticated Seoul officer with experience in serial killer cases. We experience Detective Seo’s shock as he witnesses his rural colleagues’ interrogation tactics, which mostly involve Detective Cho leveling a flying side kick at the suspect, of which there are dozens. One such suspect is a mentally-retarded man, who is beaten and coerced into giving a confession scripted by Detectives Park and Cho. Another suspect is a hard-working, frustrated family man with a hidden porno stash, which immediately fingers him (- NPI) as the killer (- Because all men who have hidden porno stashes are inherently eeevil). The lengths that the small-town detectives will go to, especially after the arrival of Our Man from Seoul, and the rising body count, grows increasingly more desperate. Detective Park isn’t fooling anyone anymore with his “eye” that he insists is a mystic lie-detector, and Detective Cho’s wire-worthy side kicks finally catch up with him. Detective Seo slowly ends up mired in the muck of corruption and amateurishness of this backwater investigation. His finer instincts dulled by anger and lack of sleep; his frustration reaches a boiling point as the murderer continues to elude him. 

The talent for achieving great acting performances that Bong Joon-Ho showed in The Host is more than evident in Memories of Murder. When the case singles out a final suspect, one Hyeon-Kyu Park, his cold, androgynous, emotionless demeanour manages to bring out the worst in each of the detectives and gives us all a look into the character’s souls. Though often painted in broad strokes, Memories of Murder gives a compelling look into the lives of these police officers at a pivotal time in Korea’s evolution and in each of the characters’ lives: You have your beat cop who joined the force to count the years in a nice, safe doorway somewhere, your corrupt cop who enjoys his a authority way too much, your bureaucrat to whom the high public profile of the case and the ineptness with which his top men are handling it become a nightmare, and your earnest officers idealistic in their desire to help solve the crimes. Director Bong fleshes out each of these types and makes them all sympathetic, sometimes injecting a dark laugh into an unlikely place (- just before interrogating an uncooperative suspect, Detective Park always hands Detective Cho a lovely slip cover for his workboot.). There’s a lot of humour, but you never lose the weight of the premise, and it’s that balance of dark comedy and the gravity of the plot that keeps Memories of Murder from being a sordid, depressing film, but retains the frustration that must still be felt by those affected by the real-life serial killings which are still unsolved. 

In many ways, you can see that Memories of Murder is yet an early exercise for Bong Joon-Ho but it’s apparent that his style is well on its way. All the touches are already there; great acting performances, wonderful cinematography by Kim Hyung-ko (- the “umbrella” scene will give you shivers for days), and the score by Iwashiro Taro haunts and mesmerises. The faulting points would be the bouts of unevenness in the film (- it really didn’t need to be over two hours long, did it?), and dwelling too long on characters who in the end are superfluous. All that said it’s a truly creepy affair and a promising early effort. 

The DVD release from Palm Pictures is a true joy for the fan who may be just discovering Bong Joon-Ho’s work through The Host. The extensive interview footage with ALL the major members of the cast and the director himself will give you more insight into making the film, working with Director Bong and the cast’s unanimous affection for the director; dangerous stunt work (- flying side kicks galore!), and more about life as a Korean actor than you ever thought to ask. Some of the best moments are with Song Kang-Ho (- star of The Host), where it is revealed that most of the dialog in his scenes is actually ad-libbed while the cameras rolled, because he felt it kept the scene fresh. The collaboration and chemistry between Bong Joon-Ho and Song Kang-Ho will be something to watch if Bong is wise enough to employ Song for subsequent films. Byun Hee-Bong, who played the tough rifle-toting grandfather in The Host, is also featured in Memories of Murder. There are deleted scenes which aren’t particular show-stoppers, but flesh out the characters even more. Some of the ripest scenes are in the outtakes shown during those peachy interviews, so don’t miss out. You get both the Korean theatrical trailer and teasers. And, yes, for those for whom reading is not fundamental, there is an optional English dub track, along with the original Korean audio. Use at peril of missing the joy and edge of the brilliant dialog (- the English subs lose none of the bite). Could Palm have made it any easier to enjoy this movie?

Well Done All Around.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 21st, 2007


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