Not rated, but definitely deserving of an R-rating. The central conceit is about a murdering rapist on the loose in the Korean countryside. There's a man who pleasures himself to the perversion of the crime on camera. It's a lot. It's just a lot. This has a lot in common with movies like Se7en in terms of brutal and mature content. There's genital mutilation and all kinds of horrors done to women.
DIRECTOR: Bong Joon-Ho
I know! I should be writing about Academy Award nominees. But here I am, knocking out my last Netflix DVD before I can start writing about these things. I'm fascinated by Bong Joon-Ho. One of my earliest discoveries at Thomas Video was The Host. It was a horror movie unlike any I had seen up to that point and it completely blew my mind. I'd seen a couple of different ones in there, but then came Parasite. Parasite changed things. I always treated the works of Bong Joon-Ho as some kind of underground thing. Sure, I recommended these movies to people. I insisted that people watch these movies. The intellectual part of me wanted them to watch them so they would become culturally literate and to experience something different from the norm. The selfish part of me wanted to be the guy who introduced them into this secret cult of Director Bong.
But when he destroyed at the Oscars, the world had changed. I wanted to have that seductive feeling of secret knowlege. So I threw some of Bong Joon-Ho's film onto my Netflix DVD queue and now I have Memories of Murder. I will say, that feeling I had of wanting to discover, is currently waning. I almost didn't care when the DVD came in the mail. Heck, I didn't even remember that Memories of Murder was a Bong Joon-Ho movie. I was certainly glad when the Criterion menu popped up and Bong Joon-Ho's name was in giant letters. I knew that I was going to be in for something special. Maybe that's what made it so hard to get into the movie. Memories of Murder took a long time snag me. I do think a lot of it was chalked up to my expectations. But it also took me a long time to realize what this movie was. The thing with Director Bong is that, while he might dip his toes into established genres, his entire modus operandi of filmmaking is to break free of constraints and formulae.
I went into this movie thinking that I was going to write about how this is just In the Heat of the Night without the racial component to it again. The first half of the movie really feels like this. There's a series of murders that the local country cops have no skills to investigate. They use TV cops as models for how to run a crime scene. They abuse people into confessing that they are criminals, despite mounds of evidence suggesting otherwise. It's only when a big city cop, actually trained, starts poking holes in their methods that the film gets anywhere near a traditional narrative. But that's when the film surprises me. I thought, "Another big city cop embarrasses small time cops and they learn to be friends at the end." It was only late in the movie that I realized, "Oh, this is something subversive." For those who haven't seen the movie, which is probably the majority of my Facebook page, they never solve the case. Not like Mulholland Drive neer solve the case. I'm talking about, intentionally ambiguous not solve the case.
As much as In the Heat of the Night is damning of backwater police work, which seems to be the majority of policework (thus damning law enforcement overall), Memories of Murder is more an attack on policework in the sense that people, by their very nature, are corruptable. I don't want to forget the following point, so I'm going to jump the gun: Because Seo Tae-yoon falls, it kind of forgives (in the worst way) everyone else. Okay, I got that out, so let me go back. The country bumpkins are shown as backwards hicks. And they totally are. They are what we fear about police work. We don't want to imagine that society has no idea what we're doing. The idea that this town is overrun by a murdering rapist and these are the guys behind the scenes is horrifying. There's something very comforting by the arrival of Seo Tae-yoon. He's that imagined character of legend in our heads. As everyone else looks a little goofy, Seo Tae-yoon evokes a sense of confidence and cool. He's handsome and aloof. That archetype is really hard to break for audiences. Heck, I know my in-laws often won't watch a movie unless the hero of the story has the same traits as Seo Tae-yoon. It's something that's wired into us. If he's being juxtaposed to the bumbling corrupt sheriffs, then he's supposed to bring the bad guy to justice.
That's what I realize about Bong Joon-Ho. I do think that Memories of Murder might be weaker than the other stuff I've seen from him. But it doesn't make it weak. Bong Joon-Ho's films live or die on the turn. I'm not saying that Bong Joon-Ho is anything like M.Night Shyamalan, who plays heavily on twists. There's something similar happening in the emotional responses that Bong Joon-Ho's audiences have, that notion of a turn. But his turn is a defiance of expectation. One of the first chapters that I teach in my film class is that audiences either respond to expectations being met or expectations being subverted. Bong Joon-Ho is almost working on a different level when it comes to the subversion of expectations. I think the man is actually a genius. From what I've heard in interviews, he just sees the world differently. It's not that he's including these moments as "gotcha" moments. It's just that he doesn't want to tell the same story that everyone else is telling. The corruption of Seo Tae-yoon makes the movie something in its own category. Solving the murder is fun and satsifying. But it is ultimately forgettable. I can think of the great serial killer reveals and they're fun. But think about Silence of the Lambs. Catching Buffalo Bill is necessary for the story because Clarice Starling is able to conquer her imposter syndrome, not because catching the killer is right. Not catching the killer for Seo Tae-yoon is more important because he's willing to murder an innocent man simply for a sense of closure.
So, yeah, the movie is great. It took me a while to realize that. But the same thing happened when I watched Arrival. I thought the movie was going to adhere to tropes and then those tropes were subverted for something far more interesting. That's what Bong Joon-Ho does. He makes a quality film that is accentuated by the knowledge that he's going to be talking about something that other films aren't talking about.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.