The Underrated: Memories of Murder
Once again, for the underrated film of the week I’m picking one that nobody has seen, but I think is simply superb and is being overlooked unfairly. Joon-ho Bong is turning out consistently excellent work (he followed this with the simply superb The Host, and I’m told that his latest, Mother, is also of a high standard) and this is a fine early example. If I had to make a comparison, then the nearest parallel I can draw is Fincher’s excellent Zodiac, being as they both deal with police procedure, an unsolved serial murderer, and are both first-rate films.
The year is 1986 and a second woman’s body has been discovered. Local police are completely clueless as to the identity of the murderer. Detectives Cho and Park are interviewing anybody and everybody that may be related to the case- but really they have nothing to go on and their methods are a touch unsubtle. Acting on a tip from Park’s girlfriend they arrest and interview (beat a confession out of) local retard Kwang-Ho. Just as they are staging a reconstruction of events, and Kwang-Ho does know far too much detail about the killings, Seo arrives from Seoul on a mission to find the killer. The rest of the film follows Park and Seo’s futile attempts to solve the case.
This film was billed initially as a horror film in the UK, and it’s nothing of the sort. It started life as a play in Korea, and the adaptation from stage to screen was done brilliantly. It has none of the usual limitations that such conversions tend towards, and feels suitably cinematic from word go. The cinematography is stunning, with the weather combining with the action to create a moody atmosphere. These are particularly brutal and unsavoury killings (one woman has segments of peach inserted into her vagina post-mortem), but the film doesn’t dwell on the violence, and the cinematography is muted, almost sad, rather than bright and sensational. It also looks, as no doubt it was, grimy for significant sections (the interrogation room in particular) and there is a depressing air of squalor that hangs over proceedings.
The acting is also first-rate. Kang-Ho Song as Park is excellent (just as he was in The Host, Thirst, and The Good, The Bad and The Weird) as the plodding and brutal detective. He resents Seo for being far smarter than him, and turns it into a kind of reverse snobbery (detectives in Korea apparently solve crimes with their feet). Seo, on the other hand, is played equally well by Kim Sang-Kyung and has absolutely no time for the bumpkin police force. He believes that documents never lie, and that brainwork is preferable to leg-work. The collapse of his character over the course of the movie is fascinating he raises Park up by comparison, but drops to the level of the local Police by the climax. The supporting cast, particularly, Park No-Shik as the deformed retard are also all spot on.
This is essentially a mystery. The audience are presented with the suspects that the police round up which include a local man masturbating on the spot where a body was found, and (the most likely) an ex-soldier that works in the clerical office of the local factory. All suspects appear initially plausible, the retard stalks women, masturbating guy is, well, wanking on a crime scene, and the ex-Soldier fits the profile and sent the song requests (that form a key part of the killer’s MO) to the radio station. As brutal as the interrogations are, this is not sensationalised, rather it feels realistic and effective.
Having said that, though, Memories of Murder is not uniformly grim. There are several excellent comic scenes particularly Park’s ludicrous belief that a Buddhist monk must be the killer, which entails him hanging around in a public bath and checking out male genitalia to see who may be shaved. The comedy (usually at the expense of the dim-witted locals) serves to lighten proceedings, and relieve what would otherwise be a grim and gritty affair. I do have to say, though, that the comedy is genuinely funny- it isn’t cack-handed and is as deliberate as everything in the film.
There are other clever touches in this film- we see, for example, the killer snatch one of his victims- a scene that is actually quite frightening. Bong films this rain-sodden sequence cleverly, using motion to disguise the face of the killer, and keep the possibilities open as long as possible. I also particularly like the end, which I won’t spoil, but serves as a touching and pathetic coda to the events we’ve witnessed. Memories of Murder is an excellent all round film.
Overall, I recommend this. It’s the Korean Zodiac, and I’m undecided as to whether I actually prefer it to Fincher’s or not. I was initially put off by a certain goat-molesting Portuguese nobhead’s love of it, but, as they say, even a blind squirrel finds a nut on some days. I’ve deliberately kept this review short and vague, just in case anyone does want to see it, as I saw it with little knowledge and I think enjoyed it much more than I would if I’d known the details. In conclusion, this is an excellent film, with an excellent cast, from an excellent director that for some unknown reason has no exposure. The BBC, and this is a use of the license fee that I do approve of, have picked it up as part of a move to expose some fine films to a wider audience and I hope they are completely successful.
Memories of Murder: a truly overlooked gem of a film.
Until next time,