Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.
Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.
While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here:https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).
There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.
2021 isn’t even two (full) months old yet and it already feels like it’s hellbent on telling 2020 to “hold it’s beer” based solely on the way it’s gone so far. So while things haven’t exactly been the *immediate* reversal of fortune that we’re all hoping for- there’s always more movies to pour down our eyeballs! So far this year I’ve been indulging in repeat viewings of older films, watching at least one new film, and returning to my mining of the South Korean New Wave that began in the 2000’s and has been consistently enthralling ever since. There were a few weeks where I went on another Noir binge, and it was glorious. Hopefully this directs you towards another new favorite, a thought provoking experience, or at least an entertaining way to absorb an afternoon while ignoring the outside world. Cheers, and welcome to 2021, the sequel we never wanted, but got anyways!
One Night in Miami (2020)
Written by Kemp Powers, based on the play also by Powers, and directed by Regina King, “One Night in Miami” is a theoretical film based on the question, “What if Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke were all friends and came together for a night in Miami? How would that unfold?“. The answer to that question is quite the story. The beginning of the film establishes each major character experiencing failure, or a loss, something that shakes their confidence. The young Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) comes quite close to losing a boxing match at Wembley Stadium in London while Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) the soulful singer, experiences one of the worst sets he’s ever had for an old and cold all white audience in New York City’s Copacabana nightclub. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the star NFL player, returns home to Georgia on which lies a vast plantation. Everything seems cordial enough between Brown and family friend Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), that is until Mr. Carlton casually reveals some deep-seated racism that rattles Brown. Then there’s Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). At this point in his life, he’s become uncharacteristically paranoid about a cornerstone of his cause in life, The Nation of Islam, as he tells his wife of his plans to leave the group. Fast forward several months later to 1964 where all four men have landed in Miami for Clay’s title bout against Sonny Liston. Thus we have set the stage and from there the performances, and subtly exquisite camerwork, take center stage as these four legendary personalities laugh together, yell at each other, debate each other thoroughly and thoughtfully, and fully splay out the emotional range of good and lasting characterwork. I was blown away by this one. Personally, I was really only aware of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, but the choice of all four men was inspired in my opinion. This is an actor’s movie, as noted before there is some good clever camerwork, and excellent scripting, but it’s the performances I will remember most, each actor brought something memorable and unique to their role and did their due diligence in recreating the larger than life personas. This is an excellent film, and I sincerely hope you give it a watch.
Written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” is one of the best neo-noirs of all time, with possibly the best script in the business. This film is immaculate in its execution, and if you’re a student of cinema, it’s required viewing. Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator who stumbles upon a bizarre case that constantly ratchets up the intrigue and mystery at every opportunity. If you somehow haven’t seen this one yet, I’ll refrain from spoiling things, but just know that this film comes with my highest recommendation. It’s a biting, cynical, and staggering neo-noir that stands tall in American cinema’s past. Jake’s given a case early on in the film to investigate a potential affair between a married couple, as the first scene in the movie establishes, this is a common practice for private eyes. After he tails the husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), around town and takes notes on his activities, Jake believes he has enough evidence and brings the story to the newspapers, which ruins the man. However, after the story has been released, the real wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), arrives at Jake’s office informing the private eye that he can expect a lawsuit. Obviously, things are not as they seem. Gittes retraces Hollis’ steps and activities until he comes across several incongruities, like the fact that despite there being a drought in Los Angeles, Hollis was drowned. Curious. There’s so much more to the film and the layers of storytelling that are hiding in plain sight are grotesque, and gloriously rewarding as an audience member. Highly recommended.
*This is not meant to glorify Roman Polanski in any way shape or form. If you don’t know what he did, google it. I’m just here to discuss films.*
The Third Man (1949)
Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, “The Third Man” is one of the finest noirs to have come from the golden age of cinema. If you’re inclined to see all of Orson Welles performances, or curious about the genre of Noirs across the board, or even just wanting to widen those international film credentials, you can’t go wrong on any of those counts with this film. Speaking of Welles, there’s a dual casting here that is one of the finest choices of cinema’s earlier eras. Joseph Cotten stars as the lead, Holly Martins, an American author of paperback Westerns who gets caught up in the crimes and mysterious nature of his old friend from their shared youth, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles had worked together since the days of the Mercury Theater in New York City, since the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and “Citizen Kane” onward! They were longtime friends and coworkers and the fact that this film is essentially about the death of nostalgia, about the morality of doing what’s right despite your personal attachments, well that’s just brilliant emotional manipulation if you know the story of the two. The film takes place in post-war Vienna with the city being split up between the allied nations, the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. Much of the city is still in ruins and seems like it could all crumble into dust at a moments notice. Martins arrives in Vienna as he’s been given notice that his good friend Harry Lime has died, hit by a car in the street. After the funeral Martins gets acquainted in town, he’s also questioned particularly intently by Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) a member of the British Royal Military Police whom Martins mockingly calls ‘Callahan’ throughout the film. After Martins questions a couple locals who have stories that are inconsistent with the “official” details, he decides to stick around and see what comes of it. The film makes some truly unique choices, particularly for the soundtrack. The whole soundtrack is performed by one man and one instrument, the Zither played by Anton Karas. If you don’t know what that is, picture the American cartoon, “Spongebob Squarepants”. Strange right? Well, especially in the first season of that cartoon, background music was usually performed by someone with a Zither. In fact, when I was watching this film, one of my roommates returned home and had walked in from the back where he could hear the Zither music and commented before entering the living room that “Oh hey, you’re watching Spongebob?” and he was quite surprised to see a black and white noir in its place. Anyways, the cinematography and lighting also hold fascinating calibrated choices like shooting Vienna, mostly, in extreme Dutch angles, especially once the footchases of the last half of the film begin. The lighting maintains an expressionist quality that creates an atmosphere that envelopes you into the mystery as the film goes on. The back half of the film is where the best cinematography lives in my opinion. The manhunt for Harry Lime in the streets and sewers of Vienna with seemingly hundreds of pursuers feels like a fever dream. A fuller analysis of the film may be required later on at some point, but for now, trust me, it’s pretty great. Highly recommended.
Le Doulos “The Informant” (1962)
I’ve already reviewed this film on the blog but I recently picked up a physical copy and gave a it a rewatch. The first time around I remember feeling somewhat engaged and entertained, but much like my first viewing of “The Hateful Eight”, I wasn’t extremely into it based on the morality of the characters (Ironically, “Eight” is now one of my favorite Tarantino movies). Granted, now that it’s been almost exactly a year since that initial watch and review (linked below this for reference), I knew the twists that were coming, and instead got lost in how the film works perfectly at making you assume one set of events is taking place, when in reality you’re only seeing bits and pieces of the truth. I was paying much more attention this time around to the camera movements and character work on display. I hadn’t even noticed the eight and a half minute one-take shot of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) being interoggated by cops that expertly displays Melville’s skill at mise en scène. This may be my favorite non-American Noir, it’s one that I will be returning to anytime a lampost glows in the fog, or when shadowy figures fade into obscuring darkness. It’s an excellent movie and I highly recommend giving it a watch!
Le Silence de la Mer “The Silence of the Sea” (1949)
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville, adapted from the short story by Vercors, and directed by Melville, “Le Silence de la Mer” is the story of an uncle (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) who must oblige an S.S. Nazi officer, Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon), while under their occupation in Paris, 1941. Having seen many of Melville’s other later films, I anticipated the origins of his style that’s all over the later Noir films- but this being his first film, it was quite different from those. While Melville would often adapt literature for his films, this one was a unique choice because this story was one that was frequently passed around by French Resistance members during the occupation, and it was penned by an infamous French author known only by the pseudonym “Vercors”. As Melville was also a member of the Free French Forces during the war, he was an informed choice to say the least. Upon Werner von Ebrennac’s arrival, both L’oncle and La nièce agree to live as though he had never arrived. A vow of silence between them. Which is a really fascinating choice because of how it affects the S.S. officer over the course of the film. He considers himself an intellectual after all. He’s well read, a lover of the Parisian arts, and a firm believer in Germany’s cause- that is until he finds evidence of the cruelty being committed against the Jews, and it breaks something inside of him. It’s a unique film regarding the Nazi occupation of Paris, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Les Enfants Terribles “The Strange Ones” (1950)
Written by Jean Cocteau, adapted from Cocteau’s own novel, and directed by Jean-pierre Melville, “Les Enfants Terribles” is, as the translation of the title would indicate, a strange one. Nicole Stéphane returns after the incredible “Le Silence de la Mer” to play Elisabeth, one half of the film’s focus. It’s almost as if Melville offered her the role due to “the niece” only having a handful of lines in his first movie, as this role is the exact opposite in tone. Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elizabeth are indeed strange, they spend most of their time in their room with each other inventing all sorts of mind games, pranks, and a full on display of Freudian psychology at work. Elisabeth (and her brother for that matter) are constantly talking almost for the entire runtime. The two are always talking over each other, at each other, and against anyone unfortunate enough to dare walk into their den of treachery and incestuous entanglement. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. It’s uncomfortable and weird, but hey, if you’re a Melville purist, it IS worth a watch for the camerawork at the very least. Out of all Melville’s films that I’ve seen so far, this one was the hardest to sit through. Not recommended.
L’aîné des Ferchaux “Magnet of Doom” (1963)
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Georges Simenon, “Magnet of Doom” is a road movie of sorts that has it’s merits, but was ultimately one of Melville’s lesser films for me. The film can be painstakingly slow at times, and while that’s a criticism that could be leveled at most of Melville’s work if you’re an impatient film watcher, I always felt as though his other films could get away with it purely out of their inherent mystery, intrigue, and atmosphere. This films stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, who always makes interesting choices as an actor, and Charles Vanel, a prominent French actor and director who appeared in over 200 films during his 76 year career. In the film, Belmondo plays Michel Maudet, a failed Boxer who’s broke and penniless looking for work. Which just so happens to be perfectly timed for the role of personal secretary for Dieudonné Ferchaux (Vanel) a senior executive of a large bank in Paris whose criminal past has come back to haunt him. Thus he’s in a rush to ensconce to South America by way of North America. So Michel’s hired on the spot and they fly out to New York, with Michel leaving his girlfriend behind without telling her goodbye, or even acknowledging her. Both men seem to be of dubious morals. The two just need to make a stop at Ferchaux’s New York City bank to withdraw the rest of his funds and then off to Venezuela! Obviously, it’s not going to be that easy. The bank can’t move that much money immediately so Ferchaux gets antsy and they decide to drive to New Orleans in the meantime where they will have the money wired to them, not wise to stick around for an extradition when you know it’s coming. Thus we get an American road trip with these two prominent French actors of their time. The movie has value in how the audience is given an outsider’s perspective on American culture, scenery, and variety of lifestyles. The film also pays homage to “Citizen Kane”, “The Set Up”, and the road movie genre overall. When it ended with one character nonchalantly disregarding the dying words of the other, I was almost glad it was over. That might seem harsh, but this one did not engage me as much as I would have expected from seeing many of Melville’s other films. Not entirely recommended.
Written by Eun-kyo Park and Bong Joon Ho, from a story by Bong Joon Ho, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Mother” is a superbly deceptive thriller that toys with your expectations in brilliant fashion. In a town near the countryside in South Korea, a watchful Mother (Hye-ja Kim) runs a small herb shop while keeping her adult son, Yoon Do-joon (Won Bin), safe and out of trouble as much as possible. Do-joon isn’t exactly ‘all there’ when it comes to mental capacity though, which is exactly how he ends up getting wrapped up in a murder mystery as the main suspect. He’s obviously taken advantage of by the local police who seem pre-occupied with moving on to their next case rather than doing the hard investigative work to find the real killer of Moon Ah-jeong (Hee-ra Mun), an exceptionally unlucky young schoolgirl. With the local police content with their passive scapegoat who signed his own confession early on citing, “Well, if I really did it, shouldn’t I be held responsible?” Thus once our titular Mother feels she has exhausted all legal and formal methods of uncovering the truth, she sets out on her own to solve the murder mystery and absolve her son of his alleged crimes. I’ve seen several of Bong Joon Ho’s films now, and while I’ve generally enjoyed his work, this is the only film besides “Parasite” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) that has struck me so profoundly. I still have yet to see “Memories of Murder”, which is considerably harder to track down in physical form than his more recent films (Fret not, a physical edition from the Criterion Collection is on the way!https://www.slashfilm.com/memories-of-murder-re-release/ ), but this is far closer in tone and quality to “Parasite” than his work with American actors in “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”- both of which were enjoyable and solid films, though this rises above them. Highly recommended.
I Saw The Devil (2010)
Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “I Saw The Devil” is an extremely violent revenge tale that masterfully tackles genre sensibilities with a mind for the consequences of revenge and what it does to body, mind, and soul. This film was recommended to me as a “South Korean revenge movie” and while that may have been accurate at base level, because it certainly IS about revenge, it’s also so much more than that. I did not expect this movie to grip me so viscerally. I have to say right away that if you are not a fan of bloody violence, of eye-covering, wincing-while-watching violence, this one may not be for you. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of that sort of thing unless it’s gloriously over the top in it’s depiction of violence, like what Quentin Tarantino does for example, or even in something as ludicrous as “Dead Alive”. Though, even I got through it because it was that engaging. That being said, the story of eye-for-an-eye violence here is eerily captivating. So, without ruining the plot for you, this movie primarily follows two men and their subsequent feud through grief, hatred, and a callous disregard for life, family, and everything that makes us human. Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is our villain, and you’ll know why almost immediately once the movie begins. He’s a murderous serial killer with brutal efficiency who performs disgusting rituals with his victims. His luck begins to change one day when he captures and kills the fiance of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun), an extremely capable security agent of sorts. Once he begins to track down Jang Kyung-chul, he, along with his deceased fiance’s father (who just so happens to be the Chief of Police in their area), decide not to outright kill the man but to make him suffer unspeakable pain. From there the film boomerangs between the power struggle of both men, each of whom gets increasingly more vile with their violent crusade against each other. It’s intense, bloody, and despite it’s genre trappings it actually does have something to say about revenge and what it does to us. Definitely recommended!
*If during your read of this edition of the Rapid Fire Reviews you thought to yourself “Wow, there’s a lot of old French movies in this one.” That’s because I was in the midst of reading “Jean-Pierre Melville: an American in Paris” by Ginette Vincendeau and writing a review of the book for another website called http://www.filmsfatale.com which I highly encourage you to seek out! My Melville piece should be up soon, but I’ve also already begun my writing over there with the article “What if: Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler Were in a Movie Together?” (https://www.filmsfatale.com/blog/2021/1/29/what-if-jim-carrey-and-adam-sandler-were-in-a-movie-together?rq=Adam%20Sandler) I’ll still be writing here in my free time, but give Films Fatale a look, they’ve got many, many, excellent articles and interviews on the site, check it out!