‘Memories of Murder’: Violence through a nostalgic gaze | Arts


What does it mean to be a normal person?

It’s a simple investigation with a complex answer, certainly not a question Detective Park (Song Kang-ho) would have entertained at the beginning of Bong Joon-ho’s blockbuster “Memories of Murder”.

Although the author’s productions have recently chosen a familiar Hollywood face (Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton in “Snowpiercer”, Jake Gyllenhaal and Lily Collins in “Okja”), Bong’s early films were mostly domestic, and “Memories of Murder “is played by all – Korean cast. The lead actor, Song Kang-ho, continued his collaboration with Bong in subsequent projects such as “The Host”, “Snowpiercer” and “Parasite”. The two remain pleasantly close to this day, as evidenced by Bong’s inviting Song on stage in his Palme d’Or acceptance speech.

After its resounding Oscar win, “Parasite” has done more than simply increase its public interest; motivated film buffs around the world to re-evaluate Bong Joon-ho’s previous films, including “Mother”, “Okja”, “Barking Dogs Never Bite” and “Memories of Murder”, the latter of which will be re-released in cinemas in October (or October 19 and 20) nationwide.

The first scene of the film reveals a young boy crouching in an open field, looking intently at a grasshopper on a stalk of wheat. The boy takes it between his fingers and slowly gets up. The frame is bathed in sunlight and a sad melody begins to play.

Why plant this seed of sadness so early? In a film focusing on the horrific murders of numerous women residing in Gyeonggi province, why does Bong introduce such intense nostalgia even before the first word is spoken on the screen?

In “Memories of Murder”, the camera is intent on capturing the country’s distinct cultural fabric. In doing so, Bong successfully recreates a disruptive moment in Korean history: the fruitless pursuit of the nation’s first documented serial killer. Although the alleged culprit was identified in 2019, the decade-long search following the tragedies caused pain and paranoia nationwide.

This long shadow of violence hangs over “Memories of Murder”. Each scene evokes whispers of a psychological darkness, a mental darkness that persists, indeed thrives, throughout the film’s life. The consequences of the violence are carefully documented by the camera lens.

“Memories of Murder” ends in the same field it started. An intensely disillusioned Detective Park, raised more mentally than physically exhausted from the throes of the murders, sits by the ditch where the first victim’s body was found. A student approaches, explaining how she previously saw another man sitting exactly where Park was sitting. The detective quickly realizes he was the killer.

Park’s eyes flicker back and forth; it is impossible to discern whether he has encountered epiphany or is drifting further away in confusion. She turns to the camera, her watery eyes glassy with both madness and clarity.

As the credits roll, voices of mourning swell over an equally painful instrumental track:

What happens when ordinary people face extraordinary phenomena?

More often than not, Bong argues, ordinary people are guilty of perpetuating cycles of exceptional violence. This violence is not limited solely to serial killings. In the wake of the chase, police officers terrorize citizens with their own kind of brutality, exhibited through cruel interrogation mechanisms and a general apathy towards people, both innocent and suspicious.

Park’s growth shows the moral ambiguity of harming others, especially when it is impossible to discern whether someone is truly guilty. Towards the conclusion of the film, the detective chooses not to shoot a key suspect, asking him wearily if he too is an ordinary person doing ordinary things. The detective’s attitude is not one of hatred, but one of exhaustion colored by wisdom, even if that wisdom requires more questions than answers:

What does it mean to be a normal person?

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