Betsy Cass takes her [at least] fifth viewing of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and sings its praises while putting it up against the critically acclaimed (but not Betsy-acclaimed) David Fincher film Zodiac.

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It’s impossible to talk about my relationship with Memories of Murder without talking about its American analogue, David Fincher’s Zodiac. Murder, which follows the investigation into South Korea’s first major serial murder case, was made in 2003, released in the U.S. in 2005 and unseen by me until 2008. I stumbled across it during a brutally hot summer in my non-air-conditioned Chicago apartment while on a long kick of modern Asian dramas. (It was directly preceded by Syndromes and a Century, which wrongly led me to liking Weerasethakul, but that’s another story). It was the antithesis of how I had encountered Zodiac. I had read Robert Graysmith’s book on the topic half a dozen times as a kid, was an avid fan of Fincher and (at the time) was fairly enamoured with the main cast. So when early whispers stated that Zodiac was some sort of procedural masterpiece, my anticipation grew out of control. To this day, the film is still widely seen as one of the high points of Fincher’s career and the procedural crime genre. You can probably guess where this is going. Not only was I disappointed in the film itself, but I was left absolutely baffled by the high praise. Had I watched the same film as everyone else? To me, it seemed an utter failure: stiff, needlessly showy, overly long, comically miscast, and disastrously paced. So I logically assumed it was my fault. I assumed no film could ever live up to the level of anticipation I’d had. I vowed to rewatch it several years down the line when I’d have a clearer head. Surely, then I’d see what everyone else saw in it.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to. Fifteen months later, I encountered Memories of Murder. I suppose it’s unfair to call it the film Fincher should have made for two reasons. First, clearly Fincher was aiming for a very different type of film. Second, I wouldn’t want to discount the individual vision of Bong Joon-ho by implying he is in any way indebted to Fincher. He is not. But here’s the thing: He was right and Fincher was wrong. About everything. Normally I’d say that there are a variety of different ways to tell a story. There is room for more than one vision. But just because there is more than one right way, does not mean there is no wrong way. In this particular instance, not only was Fincher wrong, but Bong was as right as anyone could ever be.

I’ve seen Memories of Murder several times since 2008. In a lot of ways, that has wiped from my memory what I got from the film the first time around. Instead, I remember the circumstances much more specifically. The total surprise. The sweltering heat. The fact that it served as a mirror to Fincher’s fiasco. And that I loved it. But I may have been hard pressed to tell you why I loved it. It was a very definitive and visceral reaction, but it’s taken me seven more years to be able to step away from that love and try to understand why Bong Joon-ho’s film had such a hold on me.

Trying to sum it up today, the best I can conjure is that it is a masterpiece of tone. It only takes moments for the film to establish its mood. And it’s probably not what anyone who sits down to watch it for the first time expects. It is sad and it is funny and it is terribly unselfconscious. Somehow these elements never seem in conflict with each other. The film can shift from one to the other within seconds, while never feeling unnatural or forced. Everything feels real. And I don’t mean real as in a plausible theatrical representation of things we can accept as being real. I mean real real. Like you’re spying on somebody real. The kind you don’t see on screen because it might be too painful or too boring or awkward. But Bong Joon-ho is able to play on this, to create real tension, real pain and uncertainty, as well as to mine unbelievable humor.

Each time I watch it, I forget how hysterically funny Memories of Murder is. The humour is discarded in its climactic final moments, scenes so iconic that they can easily dominate one’s memory of the film. But for practically two hours, it maintains a level of absurd hilarity so consistent that I found myself wondering if it had been a comedy all along and I’d been too blind to realize. Song Kang-ho, in a career-best performance from a career of great performances, anchors the film with his droll, stubborn detective, misguided but determined. He mines the role for every bit of awkward, uncomfortably comic nuance available to him. But the humour throughout is not levity inserted to lighten the mood. Nor is it a pointed attempt to show that the characters deal with their trauma through gallows humor. It’s never at the expense of the characters or the deeply serious story that is being told. It’s funny because life is funny and weird and embarrassing, even when it’s terrifying and unfulfilling. The humor also falls away at the right moments, expertly ceding to the gravity and bleakness of certain scenes. These moments become so rattling and indelible because of their utter lack of levity. Bong uses this shift to achieve gripping gravity with his finale.

So if organic humor and realism are the strengths of Memories of Murder, it’s easy to see what sets it apart from Zodiac. Humorless, wooden and glossy with tightly controlled performances and choreographed camera work, Fincher’s film becomes an exercise in detachment. Bong Joon-ho, by contrast, uses naturalistic lighting and a jagged handheld camera to reflect the loose acting and the raggedness of the investigation. The murder scenes are sad and pathetic, more like actual crime scenes photos than I’ve seen anywhere else on film. I still can’t quite believe the shot where dozens of tiny flies scatter from a victim’s lifeless face when a flashlight is shined onto it. In hindsight, it’s an obvious and honest detail, but I’ve never seen anything that comes close to it anywhere else. Add to all this expert pacing, which never wastes a moment but never feels rushed. Bong lets the story expand and contract naturally, until it is almost unbearably taut in its climax, then finally relaxes into an uneasy conclusion in its last moments. It’s an emotionally immersive experience, far removed from the alienation of Zodiac.

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It might be easy to say that Bong is just a filmmaker who prefers naturalism over slickness, emotion over control, but a look at the rest of his films proves that not to be the case. In the years following Memories of Murder, he’s chosen to tell stories that are hugely divergent. Despite that, he’s always been capable of altering his visual language to match, while still maintaining some semblance of personal style. His immediate follow-up, the high-gloss satire The Host, was a massive departure in scale and style, and he perfected his take on sleek, big(ger) budget action with last year’s Snowpiercer. His natural instincts seems to be for show, which makes it all the more affecting when he puts them aside to quietly serve the story. It’s something he managed to do again several years later in Mother, a film so greatly indebted to to Memories that it plays like more than a spiritual sequel.

While I’m a fan of all of Bong’s films, I can’t imagine he’ll ever be able to top his breakthrough work. One of the chief delights of the film, even after seeing it several times, is its continued unexpectedness. There are still moments, big and small, that catch me off guard. Somehow it remains surprising and spontaneous. I don’t know if that’s something I can say for the rest of his films upon repeat viewing. I certainly can’t say it for Zodiac. Everything in this film is so alive that it almost feels as though it could change as I’m watching it. But I really wouldn’t want it to. John Peel was known to have said about the song “Teenage Kicks” that there was nothing that could be added or subtracted to it that could have improved it. I suppose that’s the way I feel about Memories of Murder. I wouldn’t change a thing. Maybe because of that, it hasn’t transformed itself for me in a major way since the first time I saw it, yet with every subsequent viewing, it still feels as though there are boundless possibilities within it. It is the height of craft producing the height of good damn art.

Stray Notes:

— Whenever I describe the film to anyone, I refer to it as like an American police procedural plus kicking. I will never get tired of watching the detectives rough up suspects with their feet instead of their hands.

— While it’s obvious that the subtleties of subtitles have a huge impact on how you experience a film, I’ve never given much consistent thought to it until watching this movie. I have the British version, which means the words knickers, wank, and arse appear repeatedly. Aside from the delightful cultural mismatch, it makes me wonder what I’m gaining or losing in other subtitle translations.

— Never stop working together, Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho. This is some Mifune/Kurosawa level collaboration.

— As someone who knows admittedly little about Korean culture, I’m still surprised to see such frank discussion of certain proclivities in this movie. I can’t tell if this is groundbreaking or completely normal.

— It would be too much to say that other films are ripping off Memories of Murder, but there have been a remarkable number of very similar works since it premiered, stretching from Zodiac all the way to this year’s Marshland. Of course, they all pale in comparison. Everyone can really stop trying. They’re never going to improve on this one.

— Speaking of Zodiac, I did end up rewatching it about a year ago. I still think it’s a piece of junk (well-made junk). What is Robert Downey, Jr. even doing in that movie? That said, the scene at Lake Berryessa is still one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

— This is going to sound like a slight, but I swear it’s not: I got sort of a Life on Mars vibe from this film the most recent time I watched it. This may just be a result of both featuring hilarious beatings of innocent suspects.

— Of all the inappropriate humor in the film (worrying about a suspect’s blood getting on your boots, checking guys out at a sauna in an attempt to find a “hairless” suspect), one cop after another falling down a steep hill on the way to the first crime scene is my all-time favorite. Sets the tone of the film perfectly.

Sight & Sound, which has impeccable taste, named this one of the 30 best films of the last decade. Cahiers du Cinema, who I’ve never agreed with, chose Bong Joon-ho’s follow up,The Host, as their fourth best movie of the decade. While it’s a good film, I personally find it to be his career low.

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