What makes Bong Joon Ho one of our greatest filmmakers is that he’s unafraid to make damning indictments of society without ever coming off as preachy. There are times when he comes perilously close and may even slightly stumble (hi, Okja), but for the most part, he excels at crafting compelling, complicated characters to show our complicity in the systems we rely on for a society that fails all of us. It’s not as simple as “people are bad, so society is bad,” but rather than we are so deeply flawed as individuals that the systems we create can only reflect those flaws. We know what we want, but our desires will always be out of reach because of the damage in our humanity. You can see this pattern emerge across Bong’s filmography, and you can clearly see it in his 2003 movie Memories of Murder, which will be re-released into theaters this week before arriving on VOD later this month. In Memories of Murder, we see how justice is an illusion no matter how great or ill our intent, and attempts to impose order only create more chaos.
In 1986, rural detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) discover the body of a woman strangled, murdered, and left in a drainage ditch. The department eventually brings in Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) to assist even though they think they’ve already found the culprit, a mentally handicapped boy, Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik). However, as the investigation goes on, the three detectives continue to come to dead ends and false leads while the killer continues to claim more victims. The search wears on the detectives whose methods, whether brutal or refined, seem to bring them no closer to catching the murderer.
Watching Memories of Murder, it’s difficult not to compare it to another escaped-serial-killer drama, 2007’s Zodiac. But whereas in David Fincher’s movie the unknowability of the truth is an external, ephemeral force that takes its toll on people, Bong takes aim at those responsible for catching the killer. Park and Cho are legitimately bad at their jobs. They work harder at eliciting false confessions than they do at collecting evidence. To them, serving justice means getting a suspect to fit a narrative whereas Seo believes that the evidence will create a narrative concluding with the capture of the murderer. But everyone is wrong. The world is chaos, and narrative may provide comfort for the living, but they can’t provide justice for the dead.
It’s particularly bold to see a storyteller like Bong say, “Storytelling can be a comforting and destructive lie when it comes at the expense of the truth, because sometimes the truth is out of our reach.” The killer always strikes in the rain, so almost all of the evidence gets washed away, and the longer the killer goes on, the more the detectives have to face their own failures. For Park and Cho, their answer is a brute-force response where they’ll torture a suspect until he gives the narrative they want. But even with the more sympathetic Seo there’s a breaking point where the chaos of the universe creates a mad desire to find some sort of justice even if that justice is unfounded. We need the narrative closed even if it doesn’t make sense.
As always, Bong’s craftsmanship is impeccable, and you can see why he’s been one of the 21st century’s greatest filmmakers. He doesn’t exploit the crimes (which were based on real serial murders), and even when there’s a loathsome behavior he doesn’t revile or discard his characters. With terrific performances from his cast, Bong garners sympathy from cops who are the textbook definition of corrupt, but we understand where they’re coming from because they think that if they can just catch the killer they can stop the killing regardless if the suspect is guilty or not. The world offers us chaos and we need to impose order to live our lives; Memories of Murder shows what happens when the universe rejects that desire.
Bong is a master of his craft, and Memories of Murder is one of his best movies in a career filled with outstanding work. It plays with the same themes of Bong’s other films while still providing a unique and darkly fascinating perspective on how flawed we all are, and in our attempt to create order we only sow more chaos not because we’re “bad” or “evil” but because we’re human. It’s not an easy movie, but it’s captivating and compelling from start to finish. Those who were enraptured by Parasite will likely fall under the same spell when they watch Memories of Murder.
Memories of Murder will be in theaters for a limited theatrical engagement on October 19th and October 20th. It arrives on VOD on October 27th.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we strongly encourage individuals to check with the recommendations of public health officials and CDC safety guidelines before seeing a movie in a theater.