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Review: Memories of Murder (Theatrical Re-Release)

October 23, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Bong Joon-ho made history earlier this year when his movie Parasite became the first ever international film to take home the Oscar for Best Picture, a stunning win that was complimented by the South Korean filmmaker also winning the award for Best Director.

It was a deserved victory for Parasite, which I also ranked as my personal favourite of last year, and a wonderful capper on Bong Joon-ho’s relatively short but mighty filmmaking career, which has seen him deftly move between different genres across seven features over the past two decades.

Now the director’s excellent second feature, the 2003 serial killer film Memories of Murder, is being re-released in selected theatres across Canada today, prior to its digital release on November 3rd. The remastered film is also set for a physical release as part of the Criterion Collection sometime in the future. Timed to capitalize on the recent awards success of Parasite, this splashy re-release offers the perfect opportunity for many of us to finally see the film, which premiered at Cannes and TIFF back in 2003, but has been quite hard to access since then.

I had admittedly never seen Memories of Murder before receiving a screener link for review, and I found it to be a masterclass in filmmaking. In the years following this film, Bong Joon-ho would of course go on to make the critically acclaimed Korean films The Host and Mother, before breaking more into the mainstream with Snowpiercer and Okja, and I must say that it’s fascinating to observe how much of a sure hand the director had right from the start.

The story, which was inspired by the real life events behind the first serial murders in Korea’s history, is set in the 1980s in Gyeonggi Province, and follows a trio of detectives who are brought in to investigate when several young woman are found raped and murdered. As disturbing commonalities emerge between the victims and their deaths, the detectives, including local investigators Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha), who are joined by Seoul big shot Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), soon realize that they are dealing with a serial killer.

Blending elements of crime thriller, police procedural, and dark comedy, the film reveals a somewhat satirical edge in how it depicts the various failings of the police department and the often bumbling actions of the local detectives. Their methods and morals vary wildly, and they are so desperate to pin the crimes on someone to calm the fears of the public, that they engage in torture and other unethical methods to try and force a confession out of the random suspects that they bring in.

This includes arresting a young developmentally disabled man (Park No-shik) and roughing him up in an attempt to coax him into confessing to the murders. This particular story thread feels very similar to the themes explored in Bong Joon-ho’s equally excellent 2009 film Mother, also about a disabled man accused of murder. On that note, one of the most interesting things about watching Memories of Murder for the first time now, after having seen almost all of the director’s other films, is seeing how it connects to the his future body of work.

Bong Joon-ho’s mastery as a storyteller is especially apparent in the film’s haunting final scene, which brings deeper meaning to the title Memories of Murder, and ends the film on a surprisingly poignant note. With a sharp screenplay co-written by the director and Shim Sung-bo, crisp cinematography by Kim Hyung-koo, and finely etched performances from its cast, this is an excellent film that retains a startling freshness and relevance seventeen years after it was first released. Admirers of Bong Joon-ho’s other works should jump at the chance to check it out.

Memories of Murder is now playing in selected theatres across Canada, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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