Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok)

Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenplay: Bong Joon Ho and Sung-bo Shim (story by Kwang-rim Kim)
Stars: Kang-ho Song (Detective Park Doo-man), Kim Sang-kyung (Detective Seo Tae-yoon), Roe-ha Kim (Detective Cho Yong-koo), Jae-ho Song (Sergeant Shin Dong-chul), Byun Hee-Bong (Sergeant Koo Hee-bong), Seo-hie Ko (Officer Kwon Kwi-ok), Tae-ho Ryu (Jo Byeong-soon), No-shik Park (Baek Gwang-ho), Park Hae-il (Park Hyeon-gyu), Mi-seon Jeon (Kwok Seol-yung), Young-hwa Seo (Eon Deok-nyeo)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2003
Country: South Korea
Memories of Murder Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Memories of Murder

Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) begins and ends in the same place: an amber rice field in rural South Korea that is split down the middle by a dirt road and a concrete culvert. It is within that culvert that the first of the film’s numerous female murder victims is found—bound, strangled, and covered with insects. It is here that we first meet Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song), who becomes the lead investigator of what turns out to be a serial murder case—the first in South Korea’s history. And, at the end of the film, he returns to this culvert by chance, squatting down and looking into it just as he did 17 years earlier. There is no body there this time, but there are also still no answers, which makes the film’s static final image of Park staring directly into the camera so unrelentingly haunting.

In between those two scenes, Bong weaves a compelling narrative that is part police procedural, part political critique, and part examination of toxic misogyny in Korean culture. The story is based on true events, the first recognized series of serial murders in South Korea, which began in 1986 and went unsolved until (coincidentally) the year the film was released. It was Bong’s second feature, following the comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), and in many ways it presages his subsequent films, particularly the Cannes- and Oscar-winning Parasite (2019). Memories of Murder is visually and narratively impressive, as it finds a consistently engaging balance between the horrors of the (true life) serial murders, the tragically comic ineptitude of the investigating police, and the lethal political environment of President Chun Doo-hwan’s military rule under which it unfolds.

Detective Park is joined in the investigation by Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), who is brought in from Seoul. Detective Seo is a more experienced and patient investigator and one who is firmly committed to the process and to science, whereas Detective Park and his partner, Detective Cho Young-koo (Roe-ha Kim), are more inclined to drag in any suspect that fits the profile and rough them up until they confess something. The pressure to find the culprit is so intense that they are willing twist evidence and manufacture confessions if it will present the appearance of success.

The tension in the investigation weighs heavily on an urban/rural divide, with the former associated with a more rigorous and controlled process of investigation, whereas the latter is based on hunches, intimidation, and violence. And all the while there is a smart female officer, Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), who offers numerous crucial insights, including the recognition that the murders always take place after the playing of a particular requested song on the radio, but is summarily dismissed by the male investigators simply because she is a woman. The continued failures of the investigation and the accumulation of bodies begins to take its toll, and Memories of Murder slowly but surely morphs into a portrait of utter frustration, culminating in a tense scene framed by a dark railway tunnel in which it appears that Detective Seo is ready to forfeit all of his legitimacy as a police officer to put a bullet in the suspect he is convinced—perhaps correctly, perhaps out of sheer desperation—is guilty. Bong, who cowrote the screenplay with Sung-bo Shim (Sea Fog), teases us with the possibility of solving the murder while also dragging us through the difficulties of making it all add up. And all the while we see the killer at work, always just off screen or partially obscured or represented only by his gaze, methodically tracking and killing women on rainy nights.

Even at this early stage in his career, Bong was proving himself to be a master of both style and tone. Memories of Murder is replete with indelible images and masterful compositions, as well as tense moments that straddle the thin line between thrillers and outright horror. It is at times darkly humorous, but Bong is always ready to undercut our comfort, reminding us that lives are at stake and the system in place to protect them is barely coherent at best, fundamentally corrupt at worst. Scenes of political violence serve to underscore the importance of a society investing in its systems of protection, which here are barely stitched together and sadly lacking in resources. Memories of Murder is, at its core, a harrowing portrait of desperation and systemic failure. Its final moments drive home, through nothing more than brief dialogue and an exchange of looks, how the worst horrors are often sitting right beside us. Monsters, as it turns out, look just like everyone else.

Memories of Murder Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Two audio commentaries from 2003 by director Bong Joon Ho and members of the cast and crew
  • Audio commentary by critic Tony Rayns
  • Video interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • Video interview with Bong about the real-life serial killer who inspired the film
  • Documentary from 2004 on the making of the film
  • Deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary by Bong
  • Video interview with film scholar Jeff Smith on the use of sound in Bong’s work
  • Incoherence, a 1994 student film by Bong, with a new introduction by the director
  • Teaser, trailer, and TV spot
  • Essay by critic and novelist Ed Park
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 20, 2021

    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Memories of Murder features a new 4K digital restoration that was supervised by cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku and approved by director Bong Joon Ho. The transfer was undertaken by CJ Entertainment, although the liner notes do not specify the source. From what I have read, this transfer is noticeably darker and leans much more in the greenish-teal direction than previous Blu-ray releases. Given that Criterion’s edition was supervised and approved by the cinematographer and director, I have to assume that this is closer to their original visual conception. The overall image is definitely dark, with a largely desaturated palette outside of the opening and closing scenes, which are bright and clear, and the presence of red throughout the film. The image is smooth and well detailed, and, while dark, shadow detail is robust. The disc features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack, the source of which is not included in the liner notes. It sounds good, with solid directionality and clear dialogue.

    As for supplements, there is a ton, which is why this is a two-disc edition. The first disc includes not one, not two, but three audio commentaries. The first two were recorded by director Bong Joon Ho and members of the cast and crew back in 2003, while the third is a newly recorded track by critic Tony Rayns. The first disc also includes an introduction / interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who discusses all that he admires about the film; two short deleted scenes with optional commentary; and a teaser, trailer, and TV spot. The second disc is dominated by a 2004 making-of documentary, which is incredibly thorough, running a good half-hour longer than the film itself and including interviews with Bong, actors Song Kang Ho and Kim Sang Kyung, cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku, production designer Ryu Sung Hee, and composer Taro Iwashiro, among others. There is also a new interview with Bong conducted by film critic and translator Darcy Paquet that revolves primarily around the real-life serial killer who inspired the film and the six months of research Bong did in preparation. We also get a new video interview with film scholar Jeff Smith about the use of sound in Bong’s work and Incoherence, Bong’s 1994 student film that was restored in 2019 from the 16mm camera negative with a new introduction by the director.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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