Video Essay. Imitation, Contamination, Dissolution: Bong Joon-Ho's "Memories of Murder"

Examining the South Korean director's masterful serial killer mystery.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The sixteenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003) from July 30 to August 28, 2016 in the United States.

Imitation. Serial killer movies have always been obsessed with the patterns formed by the act of imitation. The mysterious killers imitate their own previous murders, and the way they stage the ‘scene of the crime,’ forming a ‘signature.’ Copycats eagerly join in the imitation game, making the case exponentially harder for investigators to sort out and solve. In Bong Joon-ho’s second feature, Memories of Murder, imitation, or mimicry, extends in every possible direction. A child imitates the words and gestures of a cop; a mentally disabled man mimics the gestures of the crime; a guy out for a vicarious sexual thrill wears the colored underwear found on the victims.

Contamination. Early in Bong’s film, we see a crime scene overrun by police, photographers, onlookers; in investigative parlance, the site has been well and truly ‘contaminated.’ Later, evidence will be deliberately contaminated—meddled with, and even wholly fabricated. Yet another kind of semantic contamination structures the plot and its central characters: at the start, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) stand for two entirely different modes of investigation but, in the course of the story, they influence each other to the extent of trading places.

Dissolution. Memories of Murder is, above all, about the corrosive effects of passing time—and how time renders an already ambiguous, uncertain serial murder case even less fathomable and detectable. Like in the work of one of his masters, Billy Wilder, Bong ‘unfolds’ the true themes of each of his films slowly—returning us, at the end of Memories of Murder (as in Mother, 2009), to the exact same spot—but with our understanding of what is at stake, and what has vanished, now considerably deepened.

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