at last
what i watched last week

by request: memories of murder (joon-ho bong, 2003)

(Requested by Kasey Ellison.)

Another solid entry from Bong, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know any longer why I continue to be surprised ... I’ve liked every one of Bong’s movies that I have seen, and each of them have refused to be held down to clear genre expectations. They are all different on the surface, as well ... I’ve seen four, and one was a monster movie, one was a mystery thriller driven by a mother’s love for her son, the third was an action sci-fi picture. And now there’s Memories of Murder, which came before the others. It’s a police procedural, a bit like the SVU version of Law & Order, although it more resembles the movie Zodiac. Bong is capable of anything.

Again, he smoothly blends genres. The local cops are, if not incompetent, at least crippled by the backwards nature of their small town department. They work like comic relief for much of the movie. A big-city detective from Seoul joins the case, and he accentuates the clumsiness of the local guys. But as the case progresses, his methods don’t work any better than his counterparts, and he gradually turns sadistic in his quest for truth. All of the policemen are so set on solving the mystery that their obsessions get in the way. Meanwhile, the body count of women sexually assaulted and murdered keeps rising. By the end, there is nothing funny ... it’s hard to even remember the comedy of the early sections.

Most of the film takes place in 1986. My knowledge of South Korea in 1986 is limited, so I have to rely on others. The general opinion seems to be that Memories of Murder does a good job of portraying life at that time. The military dictatorship was brutally oppressive, and this shows in contextual ways. When the call goes out for more forces to hunt down the murderer, the call is rejected because troops are needed to control a rebellion. Everyone assumes that the police torture innocent people, and indeed, questionable tactics are used by the “heroes” of the movie.

This is not a movie where you get to root for characters. What you want is for the mystery to be solved, and you understand the ways the police turn vicious as the case eats away at their insides. But there is no happy ending.

Thus far, Bong has demonstrated the ability to make very good movies, but for some reason, I wouldn’t put any of them in the “great” range just yet. He’s got time, of course, and he has yet to make a stinker. Even his American movie was good (Snowpiercer). Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (it even sneaks in at #998 in the all-time list). 7/10.

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