With Bong's second film re-released in UK cinemas, we look at how the Korean director took apart an ailing genre and paved the way for its more complex future
As the nineties drew to a close, the serial killer film – which had matured and grown in stature with more cerebral takes like Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en – started to feel a little stale. Just as this sub-genre of cinema had started to gain critical respect and wider audience attention, Hollywood spent the latter half of the decade churning out enough misguided, schlocky, and cynical attempts to kill its reputation dead (the 1996 release of Scream didn't exactly help matters, either).
It wasn't until 2003 and the arrival of Memories of Murder, the second feature from a then relatively unknown Korean filmmaker called Bong Joon-ho, that the serial killer film got its chance to shine all over again – though the majority of Western audiences would remain oblivious to this until more than a decade later. At the time of its release, Bong had already earned notices for his strange and subversive debut, Barking Dogs Don’t Bite, a satire about a man who takes out his anger by murdering dogs. It showed great promise, but it took Memories for Bong to realise what has since come to stand as his unique, genre-defying style: an ability to move between genres without breaking the overall mood.
Memories of Murder, still his best and most fascinating film to date, follows three detectives assigned to work the case of what later turns out to be South Korea's first ever serial killer – based on the true story of the real murders of five women in the Hwaseong region in 1986. These men each come to the case with their own methods for catching the criminal. Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) believes in the power of violence, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) puts his faith in DNA testing, and Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) relies on his instincts, namely an ability to stare into a victim's eyes and weigh the truth.
At first these men might appear to have what it takes, yet what's quickly established is that – unlike heroes like Silence's Clarice Starling, who is out of her depth but inevitably capable – these men are destined to swim relentlessly against the tide; their methods are not only flawed, but they are arguably making the case worse. Before we've barely even started, Bong turns the tables on everything we think we know about the serial killer film, repositioning his “heroes” as bumbling, ineffectual – and most importantly – detrimental to the case itself. It knows they don't stand a chance. Memories of Murder is laughing at them.
This cruel approach makes more sense when you realise that at the time of the film's original release the aforementioned serial killer had never been caught (in a stunning turn of events, he was eventually captured in 2019 – in part thanks to this film). What fascinates about Memories of Murder, though, is the way that it subverts and reinvents the staples of the genre to give us something that not only thrills, but frustrates by design. Bong's goal is not to deliver a story with a happy ending, but to put you – the viewer – in the shoes of its hapless protagonists.
In 1986, police technology in Korea had not reached the point where it could be accurately used to aid a case like the one depicted here. What use are these detectives without the right skills and equipment at their disposal? To illustrate the pointlessness of their task, in trying to solve a crime of this kind without the proper means, Bong simply allows them to partake in an futile exercise for over two hours – and invites us to watch. Helplessness becomes the point; the movie stands as a testament to their inevitable failure.
But Bong doesn't stop there. Memories of Murder marks itself out further by allowing itself to be extremely funny – a notion that might seem blasphemous to Western audiences outside of a parody, which this film is not. Yet Bong refuses to play down the absurdity inherent to this wild goose chase of a narrative, and at times even choses to heighten the mood. The film purports that these men can be lazy, oafish, and ineffectual, because what other choice do they have? In one memorable scene, they go to a karaoke bar and get blink drunk. What does this scene have to do with the story, except to show us that all roads can only lead to here. Memories of Murder is constantly pushing its characters into a dead end. It knows the murderer will never be found; but the detectives don't.
Bong's fusion of comedy and drama here also serves as a red herring: he allows his heroes to be playful to offset the notion of their failure. They can't get the job done, so they end up screwing about, turning to more absurd methods and schemes to get what they want. Really, though, this is masking their sense of inadequacy – a point that becomes clearer as the film goes on and the mood grows darker and more melancholy.
What Bong brings to the table – thematically, visually, historically – could certainly be used to argue that Memories of Murder is the most complex serial killer movie ever made. As a serial killer film about serial killer films, it's a deeply meta movie (the final shot, in which Park Doo-man stares directly into the camera, is one of cinema's smartest and most chilling uses of the convention), but it never comes over as “too self-aware.” There is still a thrill in the futile chase, in the idea of catching the killer, even if we know there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Bong seems to wonder whether you can create something that denies the audience a victory but is still inherently entertaining. Better yet, can that frustration work as a positive force if audiences are taught to embrace it instead of reject it?
Memories of Murder arguably paved the way for what we have come to define as the “modern” serial killer film. One can’t image that David Fincher’s coolly observed and equally frustrating tale of obsession, Zodiac, could have existed without Memories of Murder – nor his Gone Girl, which feels stylistically evocative of Bong's work here. Like Memories, Fincher is unafraid to tackle a case where the loose ends remain unresolved. Elsewhere, both filmmakers' influences can be felt in numerous films and TV shows today, where heroes are permitted to fail, mess up, and give chase to ghosts that they may never catch up to.
Memories of Murder effectively repositioned the drama of the serial killer film by choosing to make the focus less about catching the killer and more about the turmoil faced by the detectives, who are made to feel complicit when they fail to solve a case they never had a chance with in the first place. The film's deceivingly simple – albeit perfectly weighed – title understands that it’s our memories that obsess us – malleable, unreliable, deeply personal memories. And in one's own memory that this film seems to hang perpetually in a muggy air long after the credits roll – the sense of something unfinished drawing your mind back to what is ultimately a tragedy disguised as a farce.
Memories of Murder is now showing in select UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.