Bong Joon-ho’s killer instinct

The South Korean maestro’s first two films find human comedy in the darkest of places.


David Jenkins


So much of Bong Joon-ho’s cinema comes back to an idea that we can all relate to: that we live our life trying desperately – albeit politely – to resist the urge to kill someone. It could be a vile corporate overlord, a giant river-dwelling tadpole, a snotty social superior or maybe just a dog that yaps too loudly in your apartment block, but the truth of the matter is, peace of mind can only be achieved when that particular, suppurating boil has been well and truly lanced.

Since scooping the Best Picture Oscar for his film Parasite, Bong’s formative work has once more been placed under the microscope and inspected with keen diligence. Bong is no stranger to popular success, even if some of his films have been unfairly muffled due to business-tier meddling, but the question of where he came from and how he managed to scale one of the most treacherous and dazzling peaks on the cinematic landscape still remains on everyone’s tongue.

In order to help shed some light on the answer, Curzon Home Cinema have re-released Bong’s first and second features as director: 2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite and 2003’s Memories of Murder. Both of these films – perhaps the director’s most little seen, but worthy and fascinating entries into his esteemed personal canon – adopt the idea of murder as their starting point, but each runs in a very different direction, and at a different speed.

In his dazzlingly directed debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, we focus on a disgruntled, preening academic who chooses to blame all of his earthly woes on the little, handbag-sized dogs that make a constant din on his run-down housing estate. In the more operatic and expansive Memories of Murder, we have a rabble of small-town cops whose (un)professional drive to arrest a local rapist/serial killer comes with its own perfume of murderous outrage. Song Kang-ho, the lead actor from Parasite, is mesmerising in the film as a scruffy, not-quite-bright-enough detective who just can’t resist giving his various suspects a taste of what he thinks is their own medicine.

On initial inspection, it appears that these films couldn’t be more different. The former is a work of knockabout whimsy about a protagonist whose loser-ish tendencies make watching him suffer (and the prospect of him being caught for his various abuses against petkind) all the more enticing. He is a misfit in his own way, but one whose desperation to ascend the class ladder has left him at a moral remove from polite society, which includes his wife who understandably belittles him to compound his frustrations.

In Memories of Murder, the title alludes to the fact that ignorance, stupidity and a rejection of progress can make us murderers by proxy. The film dangles a juicy dramatic carrot in front of our face, which represents the prospect of solving what appears to be the perfect murder. But the harder we stare, the sooner we notice that the carrot is riven with maggots – the cops in this film are so disconnected from reality (and morality) that their actions may have cost more lives than was necessary.

Many commentators have compared Bong’s Memories of Murder to David Fincher’s Zodiac, itself about the efforts of an industrious, tough-headed team of crimefighters and journalists attempting to uncover the identity of the self-styled Zodiac killer. There’s certainly a resemblance in the forensic intricacy of the screenplays and the notion of “truth” always remaining at a tantalising remove from our desperate heroes, but taking the longview, they’re about very different things. Fincher’s film is one of high philosophical seriousness, about the myth of certainty in life, whereas Bong’s film takes a macabre and dismal subject and spins it out in a variety of absurd ways, inviting us to laugh at the very human foibles of his violent characters.

If anything, the way Memories of Murder deals with death is perhaps more akin to Se7en, in which Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman track a Machiavellian murderer who is always one maddening step ahead of their scrupulous police work. Unlike Memories, in Se7en we see who the killer is – we know his identity and can see he is there for the taking, prior to him administering a shocking, climactic coup de grace. In Memories, Bong tricks us into thinking that we may be close to answering this riddle and cuffing our man, but as with so much in the film, he pulls the rug from beneath us and we, and the characters, tumble to the floor.

There’s a shot in Memories of Murder where Bong hard cuts from gruesome scenes of an autopsy to a group of men frying topside steak on a gas burner, which more than hints at the playful, offhand tone the film runs with. The film’s greatness derives from the fact that it somehow manages to fuse knockabout comedy and visual silliness with a very real tragedy which, as it unfolds, just becomes darker and darker. Certainly catching up with this and Barking Dogs Never Bite are essential fragments in the sprawling, magnificent puzzle that is Bong Joon-ho.

Memories of Murder is in cinemas now and available on Curzon Home Cinema. Barking Dogs Never Bite is released exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema Friday on 18 September.

Published 15 Sep 2020

Tags: Barking Dogs Never Bite Bong Joon-ho Curzon Memories of Murder Song Kang-ho

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