By Lynn Venhaus
Had Bong Joon-ho not won multiple Oscars earlier this year for “Parasite,” including Best Director, it’s unlikely that we would have gotten an opportunity to see a remastered version of his second film, “Memories of Murder,” made in 2003. Now considered a crime masterpiece, Fathom Events released it on the big screen for two nights this month, and it is available video on demand, as of Oct. 27, and we are fortunate filmgoers.
Loosely based on the true story of South Korea’s first serial murders, which took place between 1986 and 1991 in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, “Memories of Murder” details a frustrating investigation as more young women are raped and murdered.
Two inept local detectives, Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha), struggle to find a culprit after a second young woman is found dead, so a detective from Seoul, Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyong) joins them, realizing they are searching for a cunning serial killer.
As the mystery unfolds, the details engulf us in much the same way they get in the detectives’ heads, and the small-town setting, with its police force unable to meet the rigorous demands of the cases, heightens the frustration.
And adding to the intrigue, the real murderer was caught last year – although the film does not reference this in the epilogue. Lee Choon-Jae was convicted for the brutal rape and murder of his sister-in-law in 1994, and with DNA evidence, confessed to the Hwaesong murders – nine identified women — and five more.
Although Joon-ho made this film 17 years ago, and he’s been perfecting his craft ever since, his distinctive style was emerging in a noticeable way. He makes room for comic relief and references pop culture, which we now know is a signature move, and he mashes up genres that enhance his storytelling. In addition to directing, he co-wrote the screenplay with Shim Sung-bo, based on Kim Kwang-rim’s play.
For anyone intrigued by crime drama, this film is a treasure trove – a police procedural that Joon-ho turns into a character study on detectives and a blistering indictment on small-town prejudices. He also effectively builds suspense as women are targeted by an unseen predator.
The murders are brutal, as the women are found raped, tied and gagged with their own underwear. Because the town’s two detectives, Park and Cho Yong-koo, are bumbling hot-heads who torture suspects trying to get them to confess, their methods are under attack. The police chief calls in detective Seo, who is smart and practical. When he cracks some of the clues, friction develops between the Big City hot shot and the locals lacking in technique.
How they change on the hunt of the killer is an interesting – and chilling – aspect, and all three actors are superb. There is a madness to these methods. You might recognize Song Kang-ho as the dad in “Parasite,” and he has acted in many of Joon-ho’s films.
The technical elements enhance the bleak story, with brilliant cinematography by Kim Hyung-ku, editing by Kim Sun-min, and a stirring score by Taro Iwashiro.
The film is an engrossing look at cruelty and breaking points, with its last shot a haunting reminder of the devastating effects of criminal minds.
“Memories of Murder,” a suspense-mystery-thriller set in South Korea, was directed by Bong Joon-ho in 2003. It starred Song Kang-so, Kim Sang-Kyong and Kim Roe-ha. Not rated, this remastered version has English subtitles, and its run time is 2 hours, 11 minutes. Available Video on Demand. Lynn’s Grade: A.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.