film

Review Catch-Up: Memories of Murder (2003)

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.

Final Score: 3 Detectives

film

Review: Parasite

*Warning! In order to discuss this film, I will be spoiling large aspects of the plot- I highly recommend this one though!*

Written by Han Jin-won and Bong Joon-ho, and directed by Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite” is a social satire that greatly benefits from the audience knowing as little as possible for your first viewing. Being the first film from South Korea to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year, it seemed like a perfectly good reason to check this one out. That, and the fact that Bong Joon-ho is an excellent director. Personally, I’ve only seen a few of his films, namely “Snowpiercer” and “The Host”, both of which were quite enjoyable and fun genre films that housed aspects of a critical eye towards society. This film, however, is far more critical of society and it’s financial machinations. If you want nothing more than my recommendation to see this film, then you have it already. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and as already mentioned, the less you know, the better… I suspect. “Parasite” focuses on two families, the Kims, and the Parks. The Kims are in dire financial straits, a family of four adults living in a small, cramped, and sunken, apartment. They fold cardboard pizza boxes for income and allow street fumagation to freely blow through their windows- free fumagation is better than none, and besides, it will get rid of their bug problem. Eventually Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), the son of the family, is offered a lucrative job by a close friend as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family in town. Ki-woo’s friend is heading out of the country for awhile and he doesn’t want just anybody mentoring this girl, none of his collegiate peers were up to the task though, as they might simply fawn over the young girl instead of actually teaching her. After his interview is a success Ki-woo begins to analyze the Park family’s situation and assess how he may fit his other family members into the high life as well. It isn’t long before the Kim family brutally excises the other working class people that earn their livings from the Park family and replace them with a member of the Kim family, extravagantly performing an act, or scheme, to fool the Parks into accepting them into their realm with high dollar luxury positions such as Art Therapist or Handmaid.

A lot of the film tells its story purely through the visuals displayed onscreen. Through the staging and direction, we can see how differently the two families operate and how each family’s financial status orients their needs for certain skillsets. The two families are staged in near complete opposites, the Kims are almost always physically close together onscreen and working efficiently as a group. The Parks on the other hand are barely in any shots with other members of their family, and when they are there are large empty spaces inbetween them. This division extends to a multitude of layers that separate the two families. The Parks can afford to outsource skills that the Kims couldn’t live without, cooking, cleaning, understanding the needs and idosyncracies of their closest family members etc. The film even wisely showcases how even simple things can affect the families in wildly different ways. When a rainstorm ruins the Park’s camping trip and they have to come home early, they complain that it was “a disaster”. However, when the Kims return to their home at the bottom of the city, the rain that the Parks so quaintly admire in the night sky, has actually caused the Kims a real disaster in flooding their home. “Parasite” even goes so far as to show that while the Parks are very particular about their maids, housekeepers, and drivers “crossing the line” between work and their family life- they have no qualms about reaching out to the Kims while they’re off duty to request a litany of demands.

The writing and complexity of this film are at the core of why it works on so many levels. Literally involving levels to be exact. There’s a lot to be said of the imagery involving staircases throughout the film too. The Parks ascend stairways while the Kims descend, fearing a misstep into the abyss below. Keep an eye out for stairs, they’re all over the film, who goes up them, and who falls down them. I think one particualrly small aspect that could get overlooked, is actually one aspect that I respect the hell out of, creatively speaking. Bong Joon-ho has an opinion about the world and what it does to people, but he doesn’t lay any judgement on the characters. Neither the Parks or the Kims are full-fledged stereotypes, the film doesn’t even seem to embrace each family’s perception of the other. The Parks are not villains or naive, nor are the Kims triumphant protagonists or simple helpers. There are societal criticisms to be had for sure, but these events unfold plainly before us, without a wagging finger or an opinionated slant with a heavy-handed message. If you haven’t seen the message of the film yet, it seems, to me at least, to be about capitalism and how it can turn anyone into Parasites. The film cleverly makes an argument for how daily competition can get cutthroat, but more importantly it dives into how the poor can get lost in the chaos by trying to smother each other in an attempt to climb into the higher class. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is also its most depressing. I’ll leave the specifics to the third act, but when Ki-woo allows himself to be filled with hope at the thought of eventually saving his Father from isolation through the power of money.. it is this hope that has infected him, it is what continues the cycle of poverty and despair. Ki-Woo even has a plan. Which is even worse when considering what his father pointed out earlier in the film when revealing that lives with laid out plans are never lived that way.

I’d be a fool not to point out the crucial performances of all the actors in the film, the movie wouldn’t work without the skills on display and comittment to the craft. Kang-ho Song, as Ki-taek (the father of the Kim family), in particular was a fascinating performance to watch evolve over the course of the film, he did so much with even the smallest facial expressions. Everyone though put in standout performances. “Parasite” is a unique and powerful drama/thriller that I highly recommend to everyone. This movie should win Best Picture, it’s got my vote! (If I were voting for the Oscars that is…)

Final Score: 4 Parks, 4 Kims

*For fun, check out this video that further analyzes the film, be warned though, it contains ALL THE SPOILERS!