December 08, 2006

MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003) from the director of THE HOST

(South Korea, 2003, IMDB entry Salinui chueok)
Region 3 NTSC DVD (CJ Entertainment)

I’m bored by police-procedurals. We’re shown a crime, now let’s watch the police solve it. These dramas are usually so cliché-ridden, and full of red herrings. Writers seem to be bored with trying to intelligently perplex the viewer, resorting instead to cinematic cheats (not showing you all the clues), or outrageously plotted cheats that you could never guess. Or they’re too simple and I guess it right away. I’ve lost patience over the years. So now, I avoid movies and TV in this genre. There’s an awful lot of it to avoid.

I didn’t know quite what sort of film Memories of Murder was going to be, I was half expecting a psycho-on-the-loose thriller. I wanted to watch it because I’d already seen the director’s next film, The Host (2006). Having enjoyed that so much, I had my hopes pretty high. I didn’t know I was getting a police-procedural movie. I also didn’t know I was going to enjoy it so much.

Whether it was because of the unusual locations, but this movie felt worlds apart from the usual murder mystery. Besides enjoying the story, I was learning about the quirks of living in South Korea in the mid 1980’s, when the country was under military rule, with the public enduring regularly staged curfews and air raid drills.

The main characters are members of the police force who are trying to catch a serial rapist who also murders his victims. Under-equipped and under-staffed, they try methods both fair and foul, and follow hunches that are both unlikely and even unscientific.

I was wrong-footed by the opening subtitles – many thrillers and horror films open by saying that ‘the following story is based on a true story’. Opening statements in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Picnic At Hanging Rock duped me into thinking the stories actually happened, which makes watching the films almost mind-blowing. When I found out that it was just a dramatic ploy, it’s both relief (for the victims) and a realisation that I’ve been duped. Rather than be duped again, I chose to ignore the opening statements, and assumed it was pure fiction.

But this film actually is based on a true case, back when the country suffered it’s first ever serial killer. Director Joon-Ho Bong studied the case carefully and wanted to tell the story from the police’s angle. And as we’ve seen from The Host, he doesn’t like Hollywood endings…

Despite Memories of Murder only being his second film, this is remarkably assured film-making. Confident character-driven story-telling, immaculately photographed, very visual narrative, very beautiful to watch. The grim subject is leavened with black humour, and by the bizarre behaviour of the increasingly desperate detectives.

The acting is uncanny. I’ve seen some of these actors before, but they convincingly become their characters, drawing me completely into the story. Several actors also star in The Host, notably Kang-Ho Song and Hie-bong Park, here playing cop and boss, rather than father and son. Sang-kyung Kim plays the other lead detective, brought in from the capital to help the country cops.

It’s an enthralling and impressive film. Sometimes grim and tragic, but always gripping. Now that I know it actually was a real case, watching it again is going to be even more harrowing. But obviously I’d like to know more about the actual events. But this isn’t information that’s easy to find in English.

The Hong Kong DVD was anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 audio. But the extras weren't subtitled in English, which is a great pity - I'd love to know what was said in the director's commentary... The film is also available on DVD in the UK and the US.

I'm sure as more audiences discover The Host, they'll hopefully be tempted to go back to this film. Anyway, in the meantime, I’ll go back even further and seek out the director's first film, Barking Dogs Don’t Bite, apparently a black comedy…

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