Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder: A Murder Mystery, Asian-Style

Bong Joon-ho decolonises our brain by giving us a murder mystery and the language to solve it in a completely Asian way
Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder: A Murder Mystery, Asian-Style

What is the best quality of a supremely delicious dish? It keeps you wanting more.

This is exactly how I felt after watching Parasite by director Bong Joon-ho. To satiate myself, I looked for more work by the director. After watching the rather entertaining Okja and Snowpiercer, I stumbled across his Memories of Murder. This is, arguably, one of his best works apart from being one of the best movies in the crime genre ever. Each frame in the movie is replete with so much meaning that you will find yourself deciphering it long after the movie is over.

Memories of Murder takes place in a 1980s South Korean village where a serial killer/rapist is on a rape and murder spree of local women. However, we never get to know who did it. The plot might not seem new to many of us, because we have been through such unsolved mysteries in Zodiac and thanks to our Hollywood-centric point of view the Korean flick is wrongly christened 'the Korean Zodiac', when Memories of Murder came much before Zodiac. Let's now discuss what makes this movie a class apart in the crime genre.

To begin with, the climax, nay, anti-climax of the movie shows the protagonist asking a little girl from the village, who might have witnessed our villain, to describe the stranger. In response, she says, he looked 'plain' and 'ordinary'. The camera then zooms in on the protagonist's face where he looks at us not in despair exactly but with the realization that he is finally looking at the perpetrator. The protagonist stops short of breaking the fourth wall but we know what he is conveying. This last shot brilliantly captures the concept of 'banality of evil' as propounded by philosopher Hannah Arendt. In simpler terms, criminals do not come with horns and tails; they look like us and live among us. This is one major point that drives the entire story; for instance, the movie begins by showing an idyllic village where a girl's naked dead body is found. Nevertheless, the village folks don't seem much perturbed by it. In fact, children are found playing with the victim's clothes. It depicts a society in which violence and crime has been normalized, so much so that it appears quotidian and banal now. The only people who seem bothered about the events are the outsiders and intellectuals who speak against the police brutality. Though the story is situated in 1980s South Korea when it was ruled by a Martial law government and events like the Gwangju Uprising have afflicted the citizen's mindset, it still feels relatable to most of us, given the society we live in where even the report of 87 rapes a day fails in bringing us out of our lull.

The movie also plays and subverts the expectations of the average Hollywood/Bollywood movie-goer. It challenges our functional and linear thought process one frame at a time. For instance, though the movie has three cops with different personality traits and sporadic comedy, it does not end up being the typical buddy-cop movie. In fact, the protagonist does not seem to share any relationship with his counterparts out of his professional setting. We don't even get to know what happened to the other two after the movie takes a ten-year leap. This brings us to the next remarkable point about Bong Joon-ho's world, that the situation is larger than individuals. We have been put in this situation in Parasite and Mother, another classic by the director, where it is hard to straitjacket the characters into 'hero' and 'villain'. It is important because the movie does not use the rape and brutalization of women as a plot point for the character development of the protagonist. Neither the protagonist nor his counterparts emerge as heroes at the end of the movie.

Another protagonist of the movie is the village itself. The director has beautifully used the village landscape as a separate character on its own. The narrow alleys, the construction sites, the small houses, the paddy field, all of these give us a sense of a place where everybody might know everybody else, but nobody seems to be bothered about anybody's life. It is classic case of a police state and a society where the trust level among people is extremely low and nobody dares to emotionally invest in their neighbours' lives.

Finally, the movie does not shy away from taking a jibe at us, the viewers, who are habituated to watching a whodunnit movie where the protagonist comes of age during his investigation and dons the style of a quixotic spy. Not only does the director give us none of that, but he also mocks the trope when one of the cops is shown looking at the other one, who is more of a silent-mysterious kinda guy, and says "he has got style". It is not lost on the director that the audience is most likely pinning their hopes on this guy to solve the mystery because he has the familiar personality traits. After all, we are used to choosing style over substance.

Bong Joon-ho thus decolonises our brain by giving us a murder mystery and the language to solve it in a completely Asian way.

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