This previous weekend, Parasite (2019) took home four well-earned Oscars, including the Academy’s grand prize of Best Picture. The surprising decision was a welcome one for many reasons, honoring the film’s masterful craft, important themes, and wildly entertaining storytelling. It was also the first Best Picture win for a foreign language film in the Oscar’s long and troubled history. Parasite’s victory is an (almost) satisfactory enough apology for the Academy for giving Green Book the award over Roma the year prior.
However, the hype surrounding Parasite is also crucial for finally giving South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho the widespread acclaim from mainstream American audiences he has long deserved. Though not a niche figure by any means (he broke into the English-speaking market with Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) after establishing his talent with films like The Host (2006) and Mother (2009), Bong has recently picked up a cult-like following from Parasite’s astounding success. Twitter is abound with praise for him and his fantastic interpreter, reposting clips of his often hilarious awards show acceptance speeches (“I’m going to drink until tomorrow”), and recommending movies made by him and other South Korean filmmakers. Although I had previously seen his English-language films, my fanatical love for Parasite inspired me to binge the rest of Bong’s filmography. Though Parasite still remains my personal favorite, I was similarly blown away by his 2003 crime drama: Memories of Murder.
Centered on the police investigation of Korea’s first recorded serial murders—the Hwaseong serial murders, which resulted in 10 death between 1986 and 1991—Memories of Murder is in many ways similar to David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). At the times of their respective releases, both films followed men on a doomed journey, chasing after an elusive target the viewer knows they won’t catch. Memories of Murder is a product of a younger Bong, but it remains strikingly effective at creating and juggling tension, humor, and sadness—none of which undermine each other.
Memories begins with local detective Park Doo-man (played by Song Kang-Ho, a staple of Bong’s filmography) investigating the rape and murder of two women left in a field outside of Hwaesong. He and his partner Cho are unprepared for a crime of this magnitude, and their methods of investigation quickly prove to be both cruel and inefficient. For much of the film, Park relies on the belief that his piercing gaze can determine guilt, which initially results in him and Cho beating a confession out of a mentally handicapped boy named Baek. Soon, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a detective from Seoul, arrives to assist with the investigation, but he and Park immediately begin to clash.
Memories is such an engrossing watch that it is easy for the viewer to forget that, at least within the bounds of the film, the case cannot be solved. We root for the team of flawed but well-intentioned detectives, even as they make comically bad choices. It’s easy to doubt the idea that a film with subject material this dark could also be extremely funny. But Bong proves skeptics wrong with an adeptness at juggling tonal shifts that ultimately helped Parasite rise to international fame 16 years later. Humor is mined from Kang-Ho’s fantastic portrayal of a headstrong but partially incompetent detective, his bickering with Sang-Kyung’s better-educated counterpart, and Roi-ha’s poorly timed flying kicks during interrogations. Tension also abounds, with suspenseful scenes of killings and chases interspersed throughout the film. The discovery of the pattern of the serial killer’s targets during the film also adds to the urgency and time-sensitivity of the investigation. Still, underlying all the humor and tension lies gut-wrenching despair, aided by the predetermined inevitabilities of the plot. The despair reaches a fever-pitch towards the end of Memories, as the detectives find that neither of their respective methods work. Kang-Ho stares into the eyes of the key suspect and finds himself forced to admit to himself: “Fuck, I don’t know.”
For those only just exposed to the work of Bong Joon-Ho, Memories of Murder serves as undeniable proof that he is one of the best directors working today. With beautiful cinematography, memorable performances, expertly handled shifts in pacing and tone, and a striking ending, the film lurks in the brain for weeks after watching, as the distraught, penetrating stare of Song Kang-Ho remains burned into our own memories of Memories.