Every serial killer has their favorite prey. In Bong Joon-Ho’s 2003 feature film Memories of Murder, it’s women who walk alone in the rain wearing red. I certainly wasn’t aware of the director’s second big movie as a writer-director until last month when, by chance, I heard about its quiet re-release in select theaters, only appearing for one day of screenings. Memories of Murder is the beginning of Bong Joon-Ho as we know him, but then, very much different from his newer work. We love to make a good “how it started/how it’s going now” comparison, but Memories does more than serve as an obvious distinction between how Bong has evolved as a filmmaker, but also how traditional Asian cinema has been an influence in his work before he established a globalized style of his own.
Three years before he made The Host, which gave Bong the foothold he has in international cinema today, Bong released Memories of Murder, a thrilling departure from his black comedy debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite. Two women’s corpses are found in a country ditch, launching a high-stakes investigation in which local detectives Park Doo-man (played by frequent collaborator, Song Kang-ho) and his violent partner Cho Yong-Koo (Kim Roi-ha) attempt to piece together who the murderer is. Thrown off by the informality of their precinct’s investigation protocols, they begrudgingly accept the help of a younger but more experienced Seoul detective, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung).
Within the film’s succinct two hours, we see a few of the themes that Bong consistently returns to over the years. There’s corruption in the government (Park and Cho beat their suspects into falsely confessing), class conflict (Cho complains about how being from the city and having a four-year college doesn’t make Seo smarter), loss of innocence (the calm and collected Seo starts to emulate Park and Cho’s illegal methods), and R-rated eruptions of violence that one should always expect to see in Bong Joon-Ho’s filmography.
This sounds like any old movie, but somehow Bong succeeds in surpassing cliches to create a much slower piece than we’re used to for a thriller, though it never gets boring. Each line of dialogue and character action has a callback later on, and there is nary a moment of exposition where I find myself looking at the timestamp. There is no on-the-nose statement about society like we’ve come to associate his movies with, just a relatively low budget feature film that gives us the most obvious glimpse into Bong Joon-ho’s influences.
Old favorites like Guillermo del Toro, Nagisa Ōshima, and Martin Scorcese are among the directors who Bong credits as his influences, but clearly the masters of Asian cinema have the most impact here. There is an affinity for sweeping landscapes where the central action is not always in the foreground, and Bong makes viewers wait for long stretches of time before we get to see what’s happening, instead opting to clash views of the beautiful countryside with our anticipation of the graphic imagery to come. We often see police officers hurling their guts out before we get a look at the crime scene.
These small moments that form a collective calm before the explosive storm is reminiscent of auteurs like Wong Kar-Wai, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Shōhei Imamura, all of whom love to use viewers’ experiences watching other films to build up the emotional tension in their own work. As a young filmmaker, it would have been instinctive for Bong Joon-ho to draw from all these influences and more at the same time, especially with this being his first truly big budget production. Compare this to his later films, which carry the same pace but are much more experimental in subject matter so much so that they can feel extravagant and whimsical to the point of fantasy. Every moment has so much intention behind it that it can be hard to know where to look. Memories of Murder is reminiscent of that style, with its story having been loosely inspired by a series of murders committed between 1986 and 1991 by the Korean Zodiac Killer.
When I say “loosely,” I mean that Bong took the facts of these yet unsolved murders and ran with them. In the same way that Jake Gyllenhaal falls into an ever deepening hole to find the Zodiac Killer in the 2007 film, it is haunting to watch the three detectives slowly piece together the gruesome details of what happened. Park at first insists that he’s able to tell who’s the murderer based on eye contact alone, leading him to wrongly accuse and torture several men. Seo, in loner fashion, tries to pursue the perpetrator on his own, only to find dead end after dead end, and Cho just delivers flying kicks that just make his thread of the story come to result in an all too karmic knot. Even the most minor characters are brought back as some sort of cruel reminder that the killer is still out there. This is especially true when Park returns to the site of the first murder at the ditch over a decade later, and finds out that whoever did it is still out there. As a reminder of his dirty work in which he once determined suspects through eye contact alone, Park suddenly stares directly into the camera, a fourth wall break that we unfortunately never see in Bong’s films again, searching among audience members to wonder which of us did it. It’s eerie, and exactly the kind of drama and suspense that make this so Bong Joon-Ho, to the point where it seriously couldn’t have been him who made this, right? Just as Kicking and Screaming (2005), written and directed by Noah Baumbach was too Noah Baumbach to be created by Noah Baumbach, Memories of Murder is too quintessentially Bong Joon-ho to be really, truly his. Instead, this is just a showcase of a young director coming to terms with their style, incorporating various cinematic influences which inform their current groundbreaking work, but nothing that we haven’t already seen. Memories of Murder accomplishes this by giving us a look into Bong’s earlier directing days, but acting as no more than an eye-opening callback after the success of so many of his other films.