Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder ★★★★★

100 Movies Challenge #29

I don't give away any big plot points, but you may want to avoid this if you don't want to be spoiled at all.

My mother loves murder mysteries. I grew up on a diet of CSI Las Vegas and Miami and New York, of Law and Order, then Law and Order: SVU, then Law and Order: Criminal Intent, then Criminal Minds, then NCIS (which wasn't gruesome enough for her, so that was more of a drop-in show). Not to mention all the crime films, (those James Patterson adaptations!)

Point is, I've seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of police procedurals. I'm desensitized. I hate them. There's an episode of Criminal Minds where a girl (it's always an aesthetically pleasing twenty-something white chick) is forced to pole dance. Later in the episode, things happen and we, the audience, are asked to sympathize with the serial torturer/killer because he has a shitty dad. That's where I quit. The camera lingers on the girl, so we see her in network-appropriate underwear. Sure, she's crying because of the guys with guns, but man her lithe body looks good on that pole. We the audience are now put in the position of the killers, asked to enjoy this girls pain and suffering until her demise or rescue. Until we get a schmaltzy voice over wrapping things up in a pretty bow with a philosophical quote.

Bong Joon-ho never does that. His camera never sexualizes the victims in this film. Sure, the victims are the same attractive twenty-something women. But there's nothing attractive about a decaying body. There's nothing attractive about ants.

There's nothing attractive about a spork.

This movie shook me. It shows nothing. There's little gore, almost no violence shown (outside of what the police do, and I'll get to that), we don't get cheap sequences of helpless women squealing, or running through a field. It's not edited in a manipulative way, so that we think a rescue may be in store when really there is no hope to be had. Bong Joon-ho does not resort to any of the cheap tricks to raise tension.

Tension is there. It just needs to be shown. And it is, by fleshing out the characters and the town and letting us into their psychology.

I noticed a lot of comments here complaining about the torture in the movie. I get it. It's hard to sympathize with protagonists so stupid and heartless that they'd use torture.

But that's because torture is stupid. Only shows and movies like FOX's 24 could frame torture in a way to make it look reasonable, "for the greater good" and all that bull.

Bong Joon-ho has no intention of glorifying the protagonists' methods. Neither does he demonize them. They're humans who make mistakes, get angry, get emotional, screw up, stay persistent, follow every lead, come to good conclusions, come to bad conclusions.

It reminded me a lot of Zero Dark Thirty, another film that got a muddled reception last year-some said it glorified torture, which is bullshit. I get why people disliked the movie. I don't understand how you can see a fully grown man clutching a pathetic bottle of orange juice, sobbing, after being brutally tortured and think this is a movie that's saying torture is "justified".

Both films are told from the perspective of the law. In both cases, something terrible has happened. The perpetrator has to be caught. But the evidence is feeble. In one case, it's non existent, in the other case there's so much that it basically negates itself.

So torture is used.

I know FOX's 24 is an easy scapegoat, but it's easy for a reason. Torture yielded results on that show. Not so in Zero Dark Thirty (if you paid attention to the scene where an intern finds the clue in paperwork). And not so here.

I think the potent thing about Memories of Murder, is that torture is not only terrible, but it's also used as social critique. In 1973, Korea was still just 20 years out of a catastrophic war that literally halved the country. Revolts and uprisings, common for a newly formed country, were still a norm as it tried to sort itself out from under the thumb of military dictatorship. Incompetence due to lack of resources, lack of training (our main character only had 4 years of high school) and an extraordinary situation pushes our characters into a tight corner.

The movie is about these characters. They're arguably good people (I love a movie that allows me to write a sentence like that) who are trying to sort through the shit, using the only methods they know how. The performances are great, from Song Kang-ho to the supporting players. The cinematography is breathtaking. The script is wonderful.

And yes, Bong Joon-ho is one of the best directors working today. This story is so messy. There are so many layers and tones. And Bong Joon-ho weaves it together masterfully. It's ones of the best murder mysteries (maybe the best) ever made.

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