Memories of Murder (2003)

aka Salinui chueok

2019 #15
Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Memories of Murder

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

Investigators

A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

5 out of 5

Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

Seoul Station (2016)

aka Seoulyeok

2018 #184
Yeon Sang-ho | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Seoul Station

Before he made zombie masterpiece Train to Busan, director Yeon Sang-ho was an animation director with several features to his name. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, to accompany his aforementioned live-action debut, he also helmed this animated prequel.

Apparently set one day before the events of Busan (there’s no obvious indication on screen of how the films’ timelines line up), Seoul Station depicts events as the zombie outbreak expands at the titular transportation hub. Through this we follow Hye-sun (Shim Eun-kyung), a young runaway struggling to make ends meet living with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Ki-woong (Lee Joon). Hye-sun’s father, Suk-gyu (Ryu Seung-ryong), has finally tracked her down, but arrives just after his daughter and Ki-woong have an argument and she runs off — and then the zombie thing happens. As Hye-sun struggles to escape the undead hordes, Ki-woong and Suk-gyu team up to search for her.

Like Train to Busan, then, Seoul Station revolves around a struggling father-daughter relationship — though this one’s of a very different sort. That’s apparent from the off, but to say too much more would be a last-act spoiler. Suffice to say, it all comes to a very dark, grim ending, with none of the redemption or hopefulness of the main film. It also continues the live-actioner’s theme of other humans being the real villains, with the actions of selfish cowards being as much a threat to survival as the flesh-eating monsters. It feels like Yeon is being critical of Korean culture, taking potshots at the treatment of the homeless, the uselessness of the police, and more. Most of that stuff plays universally, mind, but the film hardly connects with it in a meaningful way. For example, we see one homeless guy struggle to get help for his injured and dying brother, as person after person either refuses help or begrudgingly does the least they can. “They should do more,” the film implies. But if they had, what would change? In this scenario, nothing — the guy’s been infected by zombie-disease; they’d all wind up undead too and it would spread faster.

Police brutality

Half-assed social commentary aside, there are some really neat, original ideas in here, like a scene where Hye-sun must hold her never as she precariously tightrope-walks across the empty shell of a building, while behind her the mindless zombies throw themselves off the building onto the structure, their lack of dexterity leading most of them to plummet straight through it… but not all of them. Plus, as alluded above, there’s at least one solid twist. On the down side, it’s a bit slow — it takes 20 minutes for the zombie outbreak to start, for no particularly good reason; and though it mostly picks up after that, it occasionally loses focus again. The animation is of variable quality, too: some of it is very good, but at other times it feels kind of floaty, and there’s a very bizarre motion-blur effect applied to character movement.

Unlike Train to Busan, Seoul Station can’t quite coalesce its good ideas into anything more meaningful than a zombie thriller. Plus, the ultimate grimness of the finale feels almost mean-spirited and cruel rather than pointed. It’s not a bad zombie flick by any means, but there’s an even better movie waiting to be refined out of its best ideas, and so it’s not as transcendentally great as its live-action forebear.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Seoul Station is on Film4 tonight at 11:15pm.

Train to Busan (2016)

aka Busanhaeng

2017 #140
Yeon Sang-ho | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Train to Busan

Zombie movies have really risen to prominence this decade, for whatever reason (the success of The Walking Dead is an obvious culprit, though it would seem to have begun slightly before that, with Zombieland coming out in 2009, for example). You’d think that would result in the subgenre feeling played out, and there are certainly plenty of lesser efforts churned out, but films like the exceptional Train to Busan show there’s still quality to be found.

The film centres on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager living in Seoul with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an). Seok-woo’s work-focused attitude has left his relationship with his daughter strained and distant, so he acquiesces when she requests to visit her mother in Busan. As they board the train — alongside other passengers that represent a cross-section of society, natch — a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Initially safe in their carriage, the passengers must hope they can make it to safety.

The family that fights zombies together...

As you might expect, the mismatched group of passengers fall prey as much to their own infighting and prejudices as they do to the zombie hordes, and the situation works wonders for the father-daughter relationship of the lead characters. Despite that apparent predictability, co-writer/director Sang-ho Yeon and his cast earn our sympathies and create an attachment to these characters, such that we’re along for the journey with them. Whether or not you guess the letter of the plot is beside the point if you feel it along with the characters — when you’re on edge to see if they can make it, upset by their failures, and cheered by their victories. This also contributes to some effective suspense sequences, and the film is also peppered with intense, pulse-racing action scenes that have been impressively mounted. World War Z may’ve seemed to corner the market for “zombie movie as action epic”, but there are sequences here that give it a run for its money.

Train to Busan shunts aside any tiredness you may feel about zombie flicks to demonstrate that, however overdone a genre may seem, there’s almost always room for fresh voices and creativity to produce remarkable work.

5 out of 5

Train to Busan placed 14th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

And that completes the reviews of my 2017 viewing (at last!)

The Villainess (2017)

aka Ak-Nyeo

2018 #35
Jung Byung-gil | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18

The Villainess

After taking bloody revenge on the people who killed her father, skilled combatant Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is arrested and then forcibly recruited into a secret government agency who want her murderous skills. In exchange for ten years of her life and abilities, she’ll get a new identity and her freedom. As Sook-hee adapts to her new situation, flashbacks fill us in on her past — and the role it still has to play in her future.

There are obvious similarities to Luc Besson’s Nikita in that setup, but, frankly, I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth comparison than “hey, this is a bit like that!” The Villainess isn’t selling itself on the freshness of its premise, anyway — to most potential viewers, the primary attraction is the freshness of its action sequences. On that, it delivers, and then some.

It starts as it means to go on, opening with an eight-minute tightly-choreographed (fake-)single-take mostly-first-person killing spree. It’s a giddy display of violence that’s sure to entertain those of us who are so inclined. Many more hyper-kinetic, just-as-awesome action sequences follow over the next couple of hours. A motorbike chase that is also a sword fight (!) was a particularly memorable one for me (as I mentioned in last month’s Arbies). That’s also done in a ‘single take’ — if there’s one thing director Jung Byung-gil loves, it’s a fake single-take action sequence. If there’s another, it’s spurting blood — apparently if you strike anyone anywhere you’ll hit an artery and the red stuff will be squirting all over the place.

A sword fight... on bikes!

While the action scenes will be the focus for many viewers, there’s also a surprisingly effective emotional story at the film’s core. It even stops being an action movie for a bit in the middle to become a kind of romantic drama, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. There are plenty of twists and revelations involved in the storyline, so no spoilers here, but I will say it’s ultimately a pretty bleak film — it goes places I don’t think many straight-up action movies would dare. Well, certainly not Hollywood ones, anyway.

And none of that is to say it betrays its action roots — this isn’t one of those films that’s trailed like an action movie but, actually, only has a couple of stunts and is mostly something else. No, this really, really pays off just as a two-hour adrenaline kick; but it’s also, simultaneously, something more complicated. Put both sides together and I think there’s a good chance this will, deservedly, become regarded as a genre classic.

4 out of 5

The Villainess is available on Netflix UK from today.

Oldboy (2003)

aka Oldeuboi

2014 #123
Chanwook Park | 115 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18 / R

OldboyPerpetual drunkard, but also loving husband and father, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is snatched off the street and imprisoned in a shabby bedsit without explanation. He learns that his wife has been murdered and he’s being blamed. His daughter lives, but he doesn’t know where. Then, 15 years later, and equally inexplicably, he’s released. He befriends a sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jung Gang), before being contacted by Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yoo) who claims to have been his captor. Dae-su is given just five days to discover why he was locked up. If he succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself; if he fails, he will kill Mi-do. Dae-su’s investigations lead him to dark secrets, shocking revelations, and violent retribution.

It’s hard to summarise the effect of Oldboy without just watching it. As its premise hopefully conveys, it’s not wholly set in a world you can believe as our own, but nor is it an outrageous fantasy — maybe someone somewhere does run a kind of boarding house for illegal imprisonment? Stranger things have happened. It’s a film predicated on mysteries, but one that doesn’t rely on remaining mysterious — there are answers for every question, you just have to follow the strange path it leads you on and wait for the answers. Try not to get spoilered. (That said, it does have a (deliberately) ambiguous final end, but at least by then it’s answered the questions it started out with.)

Oh Dae-su and Mi-doChoi is excellent in the lead role, deserving of all the praise he’s garnered. It’s a highly unusual role with a lot of different and sometimes conflicting facets, but he pulls it all off with aplomb. He maintains a sense of mystery and unknowableness throughout, whilst also being a plausible human being in an implausible situation. As his adversary, Yoo makes for an excellent villain: calm, businesslike, always with the upper hand. The final confrontation is a scene to be savoured, calling to mind everything from James Bond to David Fincher (for me, at least) in terms of the villain’s slick lair and the twisted events that unfold in it.

Director Chanwook Park has a sure handle on proceedings, guiding the viewer through a sometimes tricky narrative. There’s also a distinct visual flair, exhibited not least in the infamous corridor/hammer fight sequence. Shot in a single-take from a vantage point that emulates side-scrolling computer games, it’s justly famed. The film as a whole is frequently gorgeously shot by DP Jung Jung-hoon, though at times it’s hard to tell if the DVD encode was obscuring some visual majesty or if it was just the film’s unusual look. May be one to get on Blu-ray, then.

Having garned acclaim in the West, it was inevitable we’d see a Hollywood remake of Oldboy. Bizarrely, Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached for a while, but it ended up coming to fruition in 2013 under the guidance of Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin. It seemed to pass by almost unnoticed. Without having seen it (yet), it’s a little difficult to understand how a remake might work. Some people would say that about all remakes, but personally I don’t think it’s an automatically worthless or artistically unjustified process to engage in. Woo-jinIn Oldboy’s case, however, so much of what makes it special, unique and exceptional lies in the direction. So do you copy that wholesale? If you do, what’s the point — just watch the original. But if you don’t, what’s the point — you’re losing a large chunk of what’s special. I guess this is why the US version didn’t go down so well — whichever path it took, it was on a hiding to nothing. I look forward to seeing it to judge for myself.

Oldboy — original flavour — is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant for it. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would never, ever pass “what would make a good film?” focus grouping, for so many reasons, and yet the result is quite incredible.

5 out of 5

Oldboy placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.