Sunday, February 2, 2014

Late to the Party #7: Memories of Murder (2003)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

Korean director Bong Joon-ho just might be the master of tone.  Bucking the bleak trends of his revenge-obsessed compatriots, his films feature wild tonal shifts, veering from mood to mood at the drop of a hat.  His 2006 monster movie The Host warranted that mismash of tones, given its Spielbergian nature.  But his 2009 followup, Mother, was even more impressive for taking the story of one mother's quest to exonerate her mentally disabled son from a crime he's accused of, and infusing it with wonderful bits of slapstick comedy, without ever making it feel out of place.  In going back and watching Memories of Murder, it's clear that his handle on the shifting moods of his films was steady right from the beginning.

Though it might feature his most serious story, a Zodiac-esque look into the real-life serial murders that occurred in Korea during the 70s and 80s, it also contains some of the funniest moments in his filmography.  Watch Joon-ho's films and you can easily imagine him being raised on Keaton, Chaplin, and other silent slapstick comedy, because there's a broad go-for-broke sensibility to much of the comic relief in his work.  He loves scenes that slowly get blown out of proportion, like when two of the main characters in Memories meet because one beats the other up, thinking him to be a rapist.  Physical scenes like that -- and the many dropkicks that occur in his films -- are Joon-ho staples, but he also gets alot of mileage out of simple visual gags.  Characters frequently pop in and out of frame at just the right time, and his level of spacial reasoning makes everything feel both perfectly in place and out of place.

But his knack for comedy only serves to make the pieces of suspense in Memories of Murder even more frightening.  After all, it's no coincidence that the first attack we see from the killer is after a funny moment.  We're out of breath because of the laughter, but then for another reason in this suspenseful, predatory act.  The switch from being a comedy with splashes of drama to being a drama with splashes of comedy is a masterful one, as the police case drags, with tensions and the body count rising in equal measure.

What makes the case so interesting is the moral complexity of it all -- it's not content with delivering a standard black-and-white, "cops chase the bad guys" tale.  Here, Joon-ho makes the police squad a little rougher, undermanned, and under-skilled.  They're no strangers to resorting to dirty tactics to get their way, which leads to many of the case's dead ends, after their aggressive methods cause a handful of false confessions.  "Even the kids know you torture suspects," one of the town's denizens says at one point.  Yet the ultimate conclusion to be drawn from the investigation is that you can never truly know anything, that there's no room for certainty in every case.  Like the patterns of this uncaught serial killer, these three cops go through the endless day-to-day cycle of police work.  Eventually, an everyday grind wears you out, and all three of these men have their certitude tested -- along with their sanity -- in service of this grind.  With Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho crafted a procedural crime thriller and wrapped it up in a complex exploration of the elusiveness of certainty, the mundanity of evil, and the toll that cases like these take on those trying to solve them.


  1. First thing I thought of upon seeing this article is "I Saw the Devil," ironically a Korean revenge flick, but one I enjoyed quite a bit.

    Have you seen it?