Synopsis: In a small Korean province in 1986, two detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: With the landmark, well-deserved victory for South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the Academy Awards last year (can you remember that far back?), not to mention the director himself taking home an additional two statues for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, it seemed only natural that his previous films would come up in conversation. He’d already been riding a nice wave of admiration with Okja for Netflix in 2017 and 2013’s Snowpiercer which is where he truly broke through to a US audience. I first came to know his work with the monster movie The Host in 2006 but also was familiar with him from 2009’s Mother (don’t get it confused with the grody mother! from 2017) – so I felt I’d already had a good primer for his work.
One film had eluded me, though, and it happened to be the one that many cite as his best of all so it was just my luck that indie movie studio Neon (which released Parasite and has been crushing it with honing in on the next big thing lately) is re-releasing it in a special version. Remastered and showing for two special nights before becoming more widely available, 2003’s Memories of Murder is director Bong’s epic crime saga that follows a police investigation of a serial murder/rapist on the hunt in a remote Korean town. The hype was high for this before I pressed play and I was expecting the same skill on display in Parasite…which makes the feelings I had by the end that much more disappointing.
I struggled for a while to find exactly what turned me off so much about Memories of Murder but perhaps it’s a cultural thing that I never warmed to. There’s a deeply misogynistic and repressive feeling to the film, with gruff men exuding force to get their way and ignoring all others who might argue otherwise. This is true for both the good and the bad individuals in the world director Bong has created and by the end of the very long running length you feel like you haven’t come up for air all day. The overarching message that appears to be relayed is that strong men take what they want and the weak, infirm, handicapped, minority, gay, female, will subjugate to them at all costs. It’s likely the intent to illustrate some point that’s never made completely clear but it makes the movie a tough, ugly sit and therefore it isn’t one I’d ever want to return to for a second viewing.
It’s very much your standard serial murder story with women being brutally tortured, killed, and then defiled after the fact. (As is director Bong’s fascination, a fuzzy fruit plays a twisted part of the killer’s calling card.) The police investigation into the crimes is hackneyed with little technology available in the mid-1980s setting and hardly any attention really paid to the slayings at first. The methods of extricating confessions from potential suspects is problematic to say the least and a number of detainees are cornered and subjected to heinous treatment based solely on hunches. If it all led to something of substance, you might be able to rationalize out the means to an end but it spills out into a void of nothingness that stretches on for infinity.
If I’m being honest, I’m a little surprised Memories of Murder is the film that’s singled out as representative of the kind of filmmaker director Bong wanted to be. Every film after this seems to have gotten more sophisticated and more attune to the governance of human decency toward others. I haven’t loved each of his films (I thought The Host was terribly overrated, so you can do with that what you will) but have found them to carry some sort of balance to them. Not here. This is a grim, grimy experience and while it may have its share of chilling imagery and a plot that mirrors a number of similar serial killer films found in the US, it’s insistence of wallowing and then pressing our face in it didn’t work for me at all.