2020 will be remembered for many things and, alas, very few of them good ones – but it was the year that Bong Joon-Ho’s extraordinary film Parasite conquered the Oscars, carving its way through the opposition with apparent ease. For the director, it was the culmination of a varied career in cinema. Of course, he had already acquired many fans along the way, myself included. His 2016 monster movie, The Host is one of the best examples of an often underwhelming genre, while his 2013 film, Snowpiercer, though virtually annihilated by studio intervention, and never given a theatrical release, was subsequently adapted into a very successful Netflix series.
So the chance to revisit the director’s second feature, 2003’s Memories of Murder, is an opportunity not to be missed, especially when it comes with a dazzling 4K restoration.
Inspired by South Korea’s first recorded serial killer case and set in the 1980s, the film depicts how a police force in a remote province struggles to come to terms with a series of baffling murders. Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) is a rough-and-ready cop, convinced that he can identify a guilty suspect simply by looking at them, and ever ready to beat out a confession, aided by his even more quick-fisted assistant, Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim). But when Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul, he applies a more sophisticated approach to the investigation, quickly establishing that the department’s current chief suspect could never have committed the crime.
The two detectives find themselves at loggerheads and, as each new lead takes them down a series of bewildering rabbit holes, it’s anybody’s guess which of their approaches will prove most successful…
Memories of Murder manages to take a well-worn cinematic path and reinvent it as it goes. It’s hard to think of a Western serial killer film that so audaciously interweaves slapstick comedy throughout a very serious storyline, but it’s pulled off here with apparent ease. An early sequence, where the poorly-equipped cops flail oafishly around a crime scene, is perfectly judged – and it’s just the start, as Park Doo-man blunders headlong through a series of disasters, always managing to jump to the wrong conclusion, always missing the evidence that dangles right in front of his – supposedly magical – gaze. We really ought to hate him, but Kang-ho Sang somehow makes him immensely likeable – the same trick he managed so effectively in Parasite.
Meanwhile, his supposedly more sophisticated rival, Seo Tae-yoon, is driven by his own internal demons and, when he finally fixes on a possible suspect, finds himself in serious danger of resorting to the kind of approach he so despises. It’s at the film’s conclusion where the story really delivers its most powerful gut-punch, with a final shot that lingers in the memory.
This is far above the usual crime procedural. And, lest I give the impression that it’s a film that was unfairly ignored on first release, don’t be fooled. Memories of Murder won 31 awards at film festivals around Asia.
It’s simply that it took Oscar quite some time to catch on to a good thing.