Revisiting Memories of Murder, which put the Golden Globe-winning Parasite director Bong Joon-ho on the map

Baradwaj Rangan

Jan 09, 2020 10:29:11 IST

It’s practically a crime to have to choose one of the following films as the Best Foreign Film of the year: Parasite, Les Misérables, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Pain and Glory. I’m talking about the Golden Globes, of course, where the fifth nominee was The Farewell, a slight, feel-good drama that stood little chance among these heavyweights.

And yet, we knew the winner would be Parasite, and Parasite it was. Because Bong Joon-ho’s worldwide smash isn’t just – like the other films – a damn good movie. It’s also a damn good genre movie that manages to transcend the genre, and that’s always a tricky thing to pull off.

 Revisiting Memories of Murder, which put the Golden Globe-winning Parasite director Bong Joon-ho on the map

A still from Parasite. Twitter

Bong himself hasn’t always been successful. Take Snowpiercer (2013). The broad genre is sci-fi, and the film tries to transcend it with a commentary on climate change and humanity. Take Okja (2017). The broad genre is... again, sci-fi, though unlike Snowpiercer, which unfolded like an action adventure, this is more fable-like, more E.T.-like. And the “transcending” part is the commentary on animal rights and evil corporations. As much as I like both these films, I see what David Sims said in The Atlantic: “It sometimes feels like Bong is trying to hit a nail on the head with a sledgehammer – he’s successful at getting his message across, but it gets tougher and tougher to absorb.”

That’s why I want to talk about Memories of Murder (2003), Bong Joon-ho’s second feature, the one that put him on the map. It’s a whodunit that revolves around a serial killer – the broad genre is crime drama. But as in David Fincher’s Zodiac, which came four years later, there’s so much more. The film assumes almost existential proportions by the time we get to the haunting final shot, which is as memorable as the one in François Truffaut‎’s The 400 Blows. Someone stares at the camera, at us, and we are left to wonder about the consequences of that stare.

This someone is a detective named Park Doo-man, who finds himself way over his head when he’s called to handle the case of a young woman, found raped and murdered. Today, a detective would use forensics and all the other things you find in an episode of CSI, but this is South Korea in 1986, and samples have to be sent all the way to America for something as basic as DNA testing. Park’s “thing” is that he thinks he can find out whether someone is guilty by eye contact – hence that stare at the end of the film. He’s still finding out.

Memories of Murder is based on the first serial murders in the country’s history, and the screenplay is built on some of the classic tropes of the crime drama. For instance, we have a killer with a kooky methodology (it involves rain, the colour red, and a song on the radio). We have a city-slicker detective being called to help, and clashing with the local detectives. But like Zodiac, the film is suffused with a profound sense of something greater, something beyond human skill and control. Catching a serial killer has to do with studying patterns, but what if there’s also randomness and chaos?

A still from Memories of a Murderer. YouTube

A still from Memories of a Murderer. YouTube

My favourite scene is a very simple one, about this randomness and chaos. For the first time, we really “see” the killer. It’s night and we don’t see his face, but we see him from behind, as he watches a small path from a slight elevation, presumably his favourite hunting spot. He sees a woman begin to walk down the path. He rises, and the motion gives us a sense of his excitement. We think the woman is a goner. But then, someone else enters the picture, a schoolgirl going in the other direction. We know both of them from earlier scenes in the story, so we don’t want anything to happen to any of them. But the movie being what it is, we also know something will happen to one of them.

The camera becomes the eyes of the killer. He looks at the woman. He turns his head and looks at the schoolgirl. He has to make a choice. He looks at the woman again. He looks at the schoolgirl again. Another filmmaker would have made this a tense moment, using our familiarity with these women to make us fear which one of them is going to end up raped and murdered. But in Bong Joon-ho’s hands, this becomes an almost Zen scene, as strange as that sounds under the circumstances. The sensory highs of anticipation are replaced by a sense of the inevitable. We simply wait for the outcome.

Despite the premise, Memories of Murder is not a thriller. It has the fatalism of a noir movie. Take this character, a boy who is developmentally challenged. His “village idiot” status is amplified by burn marks on the side of his face. So mentally and physically, he is “off”. You’d expect this boy to be treated with sympathy – if not by the other characters in the film, then at least in a way that appeases the audience. At least in the movies, we have a way of thinking that the universe balances itself out, that good things will happen to good people, bad things to bad people, and if a character has been screwed over by destiny, like this boy, then surely something good, something compensatory is in store.

But no. It’s the opposite, really. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. You walk into the film expecting to cower in your seat and watch the goings-on through slitted eyes, but even as the events conform to genre expectations, they transcend them and make for a bigger story than one about cops and a deranged killer. If there is a God in this film’s universe, He’s a Bergmanesque God, a silent, cold observer, and Memories of Murder plays out like the words of the pastor in Winter Light: “Suffering is incomprehensible, so it needs no explanation. There is no creator. No sustainer of life. No design.” 

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

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Updated Date: Jan 09, 2020 20:03:41 IST