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Memories of Murder

Let’s continue my Bong Joon-ho mini-marathon. Murders happen, pretty girls get abused and slaughtered, the village police is overwhelmed with the task of finding the murderer. And it happens again, and again. They capture suspects, they torture them a little bit, they get a couple of confessions, but new evidence keeps showing up indicating that they got it wrong. The quest becomes a nightmare, getting at the police force, turning the public against them.

This is Zodiac, Korean village style, with a police officer at the heart of the investigation who does not have the means his American counterpart would have (actually, they even have to send evidence to the US, as DNA analysis in Korea’s late 1980’s had not been advanced enough), and who is not heroic enough to serve as a centerpiece of a crime thriller. That’s because “Memories of Murder” is not a crime thriller. It is more a tableau of small-town Korea, and even when big things happen, everything stays small. It’s a more humane version of what an American film would look like. People are caught in their hierarchies, in their social contexts, in their need to please the boss, the media, the neighbours or the restaurant owner. They do not shy away from violence in a way that is unpleasant to watch when it comes from the good cops, and in this it is also a depiction of the social system these people live in in pre-democractic Korea. Politics play in the background, with police forces unavailable because they have to smother a workers’ demonstration in a neighbouring city, big changes behind the horizon that do not yet affect local life.

Bong focuses, I learn in part three of my Bong-athon on people, not on events. The way he can set free a rubber monster on Seoul, or a mass murderer on this small town, provides him with the plot he needs to drive his characters through the film. What he is interested in, however, is not the monster or the murderer, he likes the people populating the scene, the good ones and the bad ones.

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