The pastoral yellow-green fields of rural South Korea belie a sense of lurking danger. Within the lush farmland, a young woman’s body is discovered, naked, and left in a ditch. Such are the contrasts at the center of Bong Joon-ho’s magnificent Memories of Murder (2003), an important crime drama now properly preserved for the sake of history and the arts. With a significant remaster, the masterful countryside photography is now heightened, the implicit juxtapositions modernized, and fit for rerelease on the big screens. The shots skew slightly darker now, bringing to light the expert blending of Black Comedy, making every gritty detail darker, rendering the psychological crime drama as internally troubled, and paired with a mix that brings its sound to the fore, leaving an incredible impression for the viewer.
The key to Memories of Murder is that it is a crime drama about an unsolved crime. Bong Joon-ho’s very purpose, in all his stark contrasts, is to show us the inherent frustration of three increasingly beleaguered detectives. Hwaeseong could be a rural city from anywhere and the killer could be anyone who lives there. What it highlights, with such specific aptitude, are the frustrations of detectives perpetually at a dead-end. Their case may never be solved. The depth of their despair is that they will never find the killer. All they have are their memories of murder.
Bong Joon-ho has stated the ending is meant to encompass that very frustration. Song Kang-ho’s detective can read any subject. He knows their internal truth by looking them in the eyes. In the final frame, the film breaks the fourth wall and his character looks into the audience. Bong Joon-ho seems to taunt the killer who watches his film, says knowingly, you are seen and will be brought to justice. Based on a true story, of South Korea’s first known serial killer, the public waited thirty years and has finally been granted a reprieve. Last year, South Korean police finally traced DNA back to a suspect and closed the case. The good and bad news is that he’s already been long-imprisoned — decreasing the likelihood he received Bong Joon-ho’s message, and yet, kept from further damages.
And so, there could not be any time better to remaster the film. The first pairing between Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho, the film revels in their special director-actor relationship, one of modern cinema’s finest pairings. They complement one another beautifully. Rarely has an actor embodied so exactly all the varied expressions and personality of a director’s film. Just this year and a century ago, Parasite (2019) won Best Picture, highlighting the natural maturation of their deeply complementary relationship. Both films have since been slated for release on Criterion, and the future has never been brighter for South Korean film. In the great pantheon of New Korean Cinema, Memories of Murder is like a mainstream promise, both that these films will become the new mainstream, and that the people behind them would become the perfect combination of critical and public darlings, signposting the way for the future. It’s by no accident that David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) follows so closely in Memories of Murder‘s footsteps, each film cementing the way all modern crime dramas would now be made.
Our cinematic imaginations could live in Bong Joon-ho’s jaundiced country fields forever. They remain vividly alive on the screen. As do his wonderful characters who inhabit this place. The darkly funny detectives get so much mileage out of a good brawl at the bar or any opportunity to lay down a dropkick. The film, of course, is a celebration of the dropkick, too. It’s with that ruthless, sliding style that it inherits a great cinematic history, born of South Korean and world cinema. The key difference is how universally appealing it all is.
The place could be anywhere, the killer could be anyone. Because they are. It’s something very real in this rural town, that treats women a certain way, that hides its secrets and bad behaviors in plain sight. It would be impossible to determine any difference. The town has killed the women. The society has. The dark gravity of the film is in exfoliating the shame of those secrets. And we only get the secrets. Never the truth of the matter.
I rewatched Memories of Murder, deeply frustrated and begging for firmer resolution. I had only seen it once before, and recently, and the additional watch was not adding anything. It looked lovelier than it ever had. It sounded richer. I felt the sense of place was finally lifting off the screen and surrounding my own environment. But the frustration. And so I watched again and came to terms with the very difficult thing the film proposes: that we must be frustrated. That it is a film about the impossibility of the case. Now, that case is solved, but the energy of the film persists, knowing that it could represent anywhere and anyone. There is an entire history of serial murder, and in many cases, only one person has any memory.