Bong Joon-Ho burst onto the international film scene with his portrayal of South Korea’s first serial killer case, “Memories of Murder” (2003). The film stands out for its brash storytelling devices and visual beauty, making it essential viewing for anyone interested in the new wave of Korean cinema.
Two small-town detectives, Park (Song Kang-Ho) and Cho (Kim Roe-Ha), are investigating the brutal rape and murder of two women. Their methods include fabricating evidence, beating suspects, and coercing confessions out of people they know to be innocent. Having absolutely no clue what they’re doing, the local police force gets help in the form of detective Seo (Kim Sang-Kyung), a savvy and level-headed cop from Seoul. Yet, even his prowess can’t keep the bodies of beautiful young girls from popping up all over town.
The film takes place during the repressive military regime that ruled South Korea throughout most of the 1980s, and can be interpreted as political allegory. However, it’s best to take it for what it is on the surface –a witty reinvention of the police procedural genre. “Memories of Murder” isn’t your typical whodunit; it operates backwards to the murder mystery formula. Instead of following the detectives as they gather clues that eventually reveal the killer’s identity, the film chronicles a series of setbacks that leave the audience with more questions than answers.
A wonderful tracking shot of the first crime scene captures the chaos of the entire investigation. Reporters abound, kids are running around, and a tractor drives over the only footprint left in the mud. “The crime scene’s ruined!” yells Park as the one-man forensics team belatedly makes his way to the corpse. Best described as the anti-CSI, “Memories of Murder” is a refreshing glimpse of detective work in the days before the country was properly equipped to deal with homicides.
But it’s also oddly funny. The script’s unique spin on a familiar genre allows the director to introduce a touch of sardonic humor to an otherwise serious subject. The protagonist’s antics in particular are hilarious, thanks to Song Kang-Ho’s pitch-perfect performance – one that helped establish him amongst Korea’s finest actors. At one point, Park convinces himself the culprit must be shaving his privates so as not to leave behind evidence, and visits all the public bathhouses to seek him out. When that doesn’t work, he consults a fortune teller.
Bong’s delicate balance between comedy and drama is a paradigm for the way the film looks. The colorful shots of the Korean countryside contrast with the darkness of the police station’s drab basement, where numerous interrogations take place. The rich cinematography adds aesthetic value to an already well-rounded movie that viewers are sure to remember.
Jacob can be reached through his blog at: www. filminbusan.wordpress.com