By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
As I’m fond of reporting, Korean cinema has been enjoying an explosion of directorial and creative talent for much of the last decade. You probably know of Oldboy and Park Chan-wook, and have possibly seen some of Bong Joon-ho or Kim Ji-woon’s recent work somewhere, and I’ve covered a few of those films myself. For my next review, though, I wanted to travel a touch further back, all the way back to 2003, and check out one of the first films to get widespread attention, Mr. Bong’s Memories of Murder.
Ah, 2003, when Chingy filled the airwaves and Model Ts the highways, if I remember correctly
This film is set all the way back in the mist-shrouded time of 1986, of which only whispered stories and echoes of hipster fashion remain. During the ensuing five years a spate of murders occurred at the same time as social unrest flared under an oppressive military dictatorship in South Korea. A small, poorly outfitted police office attempts to solve the murders, led by Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho), a wily investigator all-too-pleased to use extralegal police-work to sand own square pegs until they fit into the round hole of a “solved” case. Big city Seoul officer Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) undercuts these attempts to his great annoyance, as it becomes increasingly obvious that this murderer doesn’t meet easy definition, and won’t be easily caught.
Song Kang-ho has carved out one of the most varied and acclaimed careers of any Korean actor, and in one of his breakout roles here shows once again his incredibly versatility. His DetectivePark is a country bumpkin cop with what appears to be a total lack of a moral compass, but whose cleverness and hidden depths reveal themselves as the film progresses.
Kim Sang-kyung is his perfect counterpoint, playing his professional, idealistic cop to the hilt, which makes his moral decay and increasing desperation as the killer continuously foils their search that much more striking. If anything, this crime tale that emphasizes the drudgery and frustration of an investigation yielding a sense of futility and ultimately despair reminds me of Zodiac, even if it did predate that movie by four years.
Just add slapstick
Bong Joon-ho shows an assured directorial hand, building suspense with ease and demonstrating an eye for striking shots of beautiful scenery and grime alike. It’ll be damned interesting to see what he delivers in his English-language debut, Snowpiercer, later this year.
One large departure from the Zodiac comparison is this film’s sense of humor. There’s some good lines and comedic moments in the film, but they make for an odd mix with the serious subject matter and the principal, dramatic tone of the film. It’s kinda like bacon and chocolate, which surprisingly works, but not in a way that makes you proud of yourself.
Nope, not at all
As often is the case with Korean films, Memories of Murder has a long runtime of 128 minutes. Unlike the breathless pace of something like The Thieves or Thirst, though, this one putzes around a lot. It could have cut 20 minutes easy without hurting it a bit.
Memories of Murder can be tonally uneven at times, but at its core is a well-made, suspenseful tale of crime and obsession.
Take a Drink: every time someone is kangaroo kicked
Take a Drink: whenever you see some ethically questionable policework
Take a Drink: every time Detective Park is a dick
Take a Drink: for every body discovered
Do a Shot: when you hear “Don’t pour shit on cooked rice” or “This is a paradise of rapists” or “Documents never lie”