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Memories of Murder: Cancelled or Renewed?

Knowing the name of the serial murderer who inspired “Memories of Murder,”. It has made Bong Joon Ho’s serial killer narrative much more disturbing. Every film inspired by a true unsolved case raises the same nagging question. Would any of them retain their full force if their individual real-world crimes were solved? In a world where viewers could Google the killer’s name in less time than Robert Graysmith takes to decode even the most simple cipher, would “Zodiac” still be such a terrifying police portrait of compulsive obsession? Probably. Would “The Mothman Prophecies,” an uncannily successful studio thriller. Still, be creepy enough to punch above its weight class. If the Mothman turned out to be a bored accountant called Gary whose prank calls went a bit out of hand? Most likely not.

This topic only applies to a few films, but none has addressed it more directly. Or responded to it more forcefully. Than Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder”. A loose but historically redolent evocation of the serial killings. That plagued the rural South Korean city of Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991. Bong’s 2003 masterpiece defrosted his country’s most notorious cold case. By looking back at it as a damning microcosm of life during autocracy. And as a symptom of the powerlessness that can seep into the general population of any country. It is whose government only cares about preserving its own tenuous control over them.

The kick-happy Keystone Kops driving the film’s tragicomic investigation naturally crash into a dead end. Further unsupported by a futile national police force. That devoted the majority of its manpower to suppressing the student rebellion. That had risen up against Chun Doo-oppressive hwan’s regime. And kept in the dark (sometimes literally) because of despotic policies on both sides of the 38th Parallel. 

What Is Memories of Murder All About?

The famous “present-day” coda that Bong tacked onto the final reel follows. It further led detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) in 2003. It is where he discovers that the once-feral Columbo wants tobe is now. A family man who sells juicers not far from the haunted farmland. It is where the fresh corpses of young women once mocked his ineffectiveness from the side of the road.

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Park looks into the small culvert where he discovered the first body all those years ago. Only for a curious little girl to mention that another man had been there sometime before. She doesn’t say whether it was minutes or months ago. And reminisced about this unremarkable spot in the exact same way. Park breaches the fourth wall and stares into the lens. As if hunting for the offender in the audience on the other side of the screen. As the film finishes with a fade-out.

Now that we know that in 2019, a guy called Lee Choon-jae confessed to all nine of the deaths. Further shown in Bong’s film (and with six others), the last seconds of “Memories of Murder“. It can’t help but seem different. Several of the declared aims of the moment have been refuted in some way. The concept is that returning the viewer’s attention would viscerally bridge the gap. Between modern Korean viewers and the terrible tragedies of their countries. All-too-recent history was the first and least evergreen. Bong has complained that filming sites were difficult to locate because little of the country’s dictatorial aesthetic remains. And his film’s nearly William Castle-like coup de graçe punctures a hole across space-time as if to declare.

Further Information on Memories of Murder

“This may appear to be old history, but democracy has always been subject to fantasies of permanence, and ours is still young enough that the Hwaseong assassin may be sitting just beside you in the movie theatre.” Even non-Korean viewers who found the picture as it rose through the international cinema canon were likely to tremble at the notion that the killer was still out there someplace, living among nice people like a tiger in the grass.

Then there’s Bong’s oft-mentioned hope that the killer would feel seen — or at least something — when he felt Park’s eyes discover him in the darkness, a dream dashed by Lee’s predictably sociopathic response in court. “I merely watched it as a movie; I had no feelings for it.” But, watching “Memories of Murder” on the Criterion Collection’s deluxe and context-rich new Blu-ray, it’s fascinating how the closure afforded by Lee’s admissions simply serves to highlight how the picture was never truly about him in the first place.

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Of course, “great film has subtext” isn’t a shocking revelation, and Bong — a former student demonstrator himself — has never been shy about the fact that his interest in the Hwaseong murders was motivated by how they reflected a national malaise in the South Korean body politic (“I wanted to address the limitations of our nation and society through the film by portraying the tragic losses of the inspectors who worked on the case,” the young director says in the 16-minute trailer. 

What You Need to Know About the Movie

Memories of Murder” has always been a slapstick requiem for a traumatic era in the form of a very special episode of “CSI: Gyeonggi Province,” and it had already crystallized into an early example of Bong’s genius for articulating societal ills through genre-inflected stories that offer unobstructed views of their most invisible victims long before Lee’s confession. In other words, nothing about the recent events has a substantial impact on the film retroactively.

And yet, to paraphrase Wong Kar Wai, this is not the same film, and we are not the same audience. Watching “Memories of Murder” in 2021 — or, at least, as an American watching “Memories of Murder” in 2021 — the last scene has a different flavor than it had previously. Once upon a time, the ending of Bong’s film appeared to be a character breaching the fourth wall. However, now that we know Lee is in prison, it no longer feels like Park is “simply staring” at us with the all-seeing eyes he previously attributed to his “success” as a detective.

These days, the fourth wall appears to be a two-way mirror, and the slack-jawed juice extractor salesperson appears to be asking us to identify the powerlessness that prompted him to change occupations rather than seeking for a nameless someone in the throng on the other side of the screen.

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Park’s recollections of the killings may have faded so far into the past that even the local children appear clueless about the horrors that once afflicted their village, but he still feels like the butt of a joke that the killer had been playing on behalf of Korea’s despotic government.

Review of the Series

“It’s easy to feel that the killer was mocking the nation,” Bong says in the making-of documentary, referring to how Lee’s reign of terror coincided with Roh Tae-“war woos on crime.” Now that the name of the killer is established, it’s simpler to see every other character in Bong’s film as a victim. The most heinous of them all.

That collective sense of victimization varies, but even at their most brutal, Park and his goon squad are more powerless than wicked (a distinction made literal by the early scene in which Park struggles to have sex with his girlfriend and deepened by the less than helpful effect that unchecked masculinity has on the murder investigation throughout the rest of the film). 

Living under the existential threat of military annihilation from your next-door neighbor — and suffering on some level from the psychic discord of attempting to police an inherently unjust state — Park is a testosterone-forward country bumpkin who aspires to be like the cops he sees on TV but will settle for any opportunity to assert control over any aspect of his existence. So when a serial murderer stumbles into Park’s territory, the gory killings provide our shit-kicking hero with a real opportunity to clean up his patch of the national rot, to safeguard the working people of a country that doesn’t care about them.


And he does so, of course, by blaming the murders on a disabled boy, abusing him in the process of obtaining a forced confession, inadvertently destroying a crime scene, consulting a psychic, ignoring the smartest cop in Hwaseong because she’s a woman, forcing a male cop to cross-dress as serial killer bait, conducting a stakeout at a local bathhouse in order to apprehend any men without pubes. In the film’s opening scene, the derision he receives from a local youngster reflects not just the hilarious futility of fighting crime in a society that has become one but also the buffoonery of attempting.

Park has convinced himself that he can see evil in people’s faces because he needs to believe that he has even the smallest personal agency to keep Korea from drifting further away from the promise of the twenty-first century; he cites American movies and parrots English phrases with the bitter cool of a kid bragging about an older brother who bullies him at home, and his love-hate relationship with the West is sealed with a cruelly ironic flourish at the end of the movie. (Another interesting point is that Korean officials actually sent the items to Japan in real life.)