Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bong at BAM: Memories of Murder

Evidently, 1986 was a good year to be a serial killer in South Korea, with periodic protests distracting the police. Inspired by the actual unsolved case of the country’s first publicized serial killer, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (trailer here), opens Monsters and Murderers, the director’s upcoming BAM Cinematek retrospective this coming Thursday.

Probably the centerpiece of the series is a pre-release screening of Bong’s latest film, Mother, the story of one woman’s desperate attempt to exonerate her mentally challenged son of a murder conviction. In fact, Mother and Memories are somewhat related thematically, even sharing some important plot points when the provincial police browbeat a false confession out of a slow-witted suspect. Needless to say, they are soon proved tragically wrong.

It starts with one body, but more soon follow. Lending his expertise to the local force, Seoul Detective Seo Tae-yoon identifies certain patterns: rain, red clothing. However, he clashes rather badly with local slacker cop Park Doo-man, even coming to blows at crucial junctures of the investigation. At least they seem to be on the right track when Kwon Gui-ok, the only often-dismissed woman officer on the force, figures out another key trigger—radio requests for an obscure pop song.

Though Memories was only Bong’s second feature, one can still see hallmarks of his decidedly dark approach to genre filmmaker present throughout. It definitely resists feel good heroics, preferring angst and tragedy. Bong clearly is not afraid to kill off characters that would be sacrosanct in Hollywood films and if you want tidy closure, his filmography is probably not for you.

As a noir serial killer, albeit a particularly dark one, Memories is quite effective. While Mother is more challenging in tone and implications, Memories contemplative contemporary coda memorably encapsulates ambiguities and uncertainty of Bong’s world view. As Detective Park, Bong regular Song Kang-ho does lazy and loutish to perfection, while also digging deeper for the really heavy climax and denouement.

Throughout Memories, Bong masterfully maintains the creepy atmosphere and slow-boiling tension, while also offering an unsettlingly grim assessment of human nature. That all seems to be what Bong films are all about based on the evidence of the four features and three shorts programmed for the Monsters and Murderers series. Far superior to Bong’s breakout hit The Host and nearly as strong as Mother, Memories kicks off BAM’s retrospective this coming Thursday (2/25).