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Film Review: Memories of Murder (2003)

Bong Joon-ho’s harrowing murder mystery centres on bullish detectives Park and Cho, who are investigating an escalating series of sexually motivated killings in their rural province. As the bodies continue to pile up, Detective Seo is brought in from Seoul to assist the case. His more pensive brand of policing clashes immediately with Park’s crude methodology, and the two soon fall into an aggressive state of distrust. This tumultuous relationship, amplified by constant pressure from both press and public to solve the case, forms the film’s unsteady core, and Bong’s masterful characterisation creates an enthralling canvas of resentment and pain.

Set in 1986, midway through unelected Chun Doo-hwan’s leadership, Memoires of Murder offers a scathing critique of South Korea’s draconian past; a sharp commentary on government sanctioned oppression and unchecked law enforcement. Detective Park’s brutal interrogation techniques – beating innocent suspects into a confession – and callous falsifying of evidence are a stark warning of the power that unaccountable institutions can hold, none more so than the police. Nestled among a backdrop of protest and fear, the film underlines the aloofness of undemocratic governance; the regime is too busy dispelling demonstrations to lend vital assistance to the case. 

Bong continued this trend of astute political observation in his next film, The Host (2005), which used the superficial spectacle of a CGI monster as a metaphor for South Korea’s symbiotic relationship with America.

As a standalone thriller Memories of Murder is a pacey enigma which commands the audience’s attention, and David Fincher’s Zodiac, released four years later, was rightfully compared to the sensation that preceded it.

Yet it’s this ideological bite, which Fincher’s own serial killer project lacked, which gives Bong’s films such nuanced flair. His sublime cinematography is matched by a genuine sense of self, and Memories of Murder offers an engrossing narrative embellished with fierce indignation.

Written by Glenn Houlihan

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