Memories of Murder
In his breakthrough second feature, Bong Joon Ho explodes the conventions of the policier with thrillingly subversive, genre-defying results. Based on the true story of a string of serial killings that rocked a rural community in the 1980s, Memories of Murder stars New Korean Cinema icon Song Kang Ho as the local officer who reluctantly joins forces with a seasoned Seoul detective (Kim Sang Kyung) to investigate the crimes—leading each man on a wrenching, yearslong odyssey of failure and frustration that will drive him to the existential edge. Combining a gripping procedural with a vivid social portrait of the everyday absurdity of life under military rule, Bong fashions a haunting journey into ever-deepening darkness that begins as a black-comic satire and ends as a soul-shattering encounter with the abyss.
Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder comes to Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection, presented on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration.
Restoration wise this looks great. Outside of a few minor blemishes damage is not an issue, and the presentation ends up being incredibly sharp and clear, retaining a mostly film-like consistency to it. The image is also clean and free of noise, at least as far as I could see on my television.
Unfortunately, like a handful of other titles released recently by Criterion, there was some online controversy around the presentation's colour grading. I had never seen the film prior to this, yet I still managed to be a bit stunned at not only how dull the colours are, but also at how green the image ends up looking. Bong mentions right off in one of the included commentaries that, outside of the opening and closing sequences, the film went through a bleach-bypass process, with mention in the included making-of documentary (from 2004) that they were going for a “monochromatic” look. Since Bong is known to be a fan of David Fincher (it’s mentioned through the supplements he is a huge admirer of Zodiac at the very least, made after this film mind you) I wouldn’t doubt that Fincher’s Seven—a film that used the same process—came to mind while making this one. The included trailers have a similar look, complete with the green tint, though I can’t say whether the colour grading of those trailers have been modified for this edition, or are sourced from less-than-ideal elements.
If the presentation is going for that bleach-bypass look then I would say it’s fine, with the caveat that it’s not a natural photographic look and the end results definitely have more of a digital sheen; it looks a bit off compared to what Seven or even Pitch Black both show. It’s clear the colours have been altered digitally, and that more than likely has to do with where the process would be done during the actual photographic development cycle and where this restoration is sourced from. For bleach-bypass (retaining the silver in the emulsion, giving the film an undersaturated, almost black-and-white look), the process is usually done at the interpositive or internegative stage, and is usually not something done with the negative, more out of fear of damaging those elements. Since this restoration is working from the original negative (where most modern 4K restorations are sourced) and not from a print that would have been struck after or during the actual process, it means digital techniques would have to be applied in its place, and those digital adjustments are what have led to the results here.
This look isn’t applied to every sequence in the film: as mentioned earlier, Bong didn’t apply the look to the opening and closing of the film, and they have a golden hue here. The rest of the film has the desaturated, greener look. At the very least, the look doesn’t negatively impact the digital presentation in other areas. Black levels still end up being quite good, and the darker scenes manage to deliver a nice, if not perfect, amount of detail, best shown in the rice fields, and highlights are still clear, as displayed during the many rainy sequences. The look does dull out the reds—a key plot point in the film—but they still manage to stick out from everything else, and the included making-of documentary does mention some of the reds were digitally added or altered during post-production. Looking at screen captures from other editions (again, I haven’t seen the film before), I can see the image is still dull for those ones, but this disc's look is still clearly different in comparison. I can’t say what elements those presentations are sourced from, or whether they look correct themselves.
I don’t doubt this is the look Bong intended, and maybe the film screened with a similar look that just got lost in home video editions, yet even if I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt I’m still going to wager that the filmmaker fine-tuned this restoration to look exactly as he wanted since the actual process can vary. When all is said and done, the image does have a bit of a digital look because it hasn’t gone through the proper photochemical process, but the film texture is still there and the end results are still strong.
The film’s Korean soundtrack comes with a 5.1 surround presentation, presented in DTS-HD MA. The film has a surprisingly creative mix and it’s delivered well here. Dialogue sounds sharp and crisp, and music has some wonderful highs and lows. Sound effects vary widely in range as well, and the pouring rain manages to surround the viewer nicely, especially in a closing sequence that also involves a tunnel, with noticeable splits and direction. Very effective overall.
The film has received a number of editions around the world and Criterion ports a lot of this material over to this edition, adding on some exclusive material of their own. The supplements are spread over two discs.
Recorded originally for the 2004 Korean DVD edition for the film, Criterion ports over the two audio commentaries from that edition to accompany the film on the first disc, both in Korean with English subtitles. The first features director Bong Joon-ho, cinematographer Kim Hyeong-gyu, and production designer Yu Seong-hie, and the second features Bong and actors Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, and Park No-shik. Of the two the director/cast track is the looser one, featuring more laughs from its participants. Though both tracks will touch on similar topics, the cast one focuses far more on the performances, what each actor was thinking during some scenes (Song, for example, mentions all he could think during one beating scene was he had to be really good so they wouldn’t have to do multiple takes), recall rehearsals, and touch on what was improvised (some of it during post). They also comment on the performances of the other actors. It manages to be very insightful and fun.
The crew track is a far more technical one, getting into an almost distressing level of detail around, I swear, every aspect of the film, right down to the props that had to reflect the era, like the cigarettes that appear within it. Since the film was planned to have a muted look, production designer Yu had to take colour schemes of the set decorating into account so that the film would look right on screen, and though they were able to find decent locations that would mostly fit the required scenes, they still had to put in a lot of changes, like building a house or even painting the grass. Weather could get in the way (it sounds as though a typhoon had hit at one point, making things more difficult) so they had to alter plans, but CGI effects were used to correct some things. It’s interesting that Bong, on his second film, already saw the advantages of CGI in just "correcting" things here and there, which he of course would carry on through his other films. For example, a good chunk of Parasite features heavy CGI that’s pretty much invisible; instead of painting the grass in that film, as they did here, Bong just CGI’d the yard where needed.
Again it’s a very technical track, even getting into editing and rhythm, camera placement, and all of that (with Bong even breaking down a few scenes), and while I thought it was incredibly fascinating, people who can’t tolerate a lot of technical detail will more than likely want to run away.
Surprisingly, neither track gets that much into the actual story or the case it’s based on (those topics get mentions here and there) but that’s corrected with yet another audio commentary, a new one with Tony Rayns recorded exclusively for this edition. Rayns touches on the original case and how the case was solved around the release of Parasite. He also goes on to explain how the film isn’t truly based on the real case, as it takes a lot of liberties, but points out where the film matches reality and where it takes liberties. Instead, as Rayns explains, the film is more about this particular period in South Korea and its government, and how Bong uses the murders and their handling by authorities to show the ramifications of the government’s policies and actions. He talks about influences, film and print (even mentioning how he suggested the graphic novel From Hell to Bong), looks at the structure of the film and individual sequences, and of course talks about the meta-ness of the ending. It’s a solid scholarly track, expanding on things nicely from the other tracks since it looks at the film from a more distanced and academic perspective, explaining how the film is important regarding the new Korean cinema.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro next pops up for a new interview on the first disc and for 14-minutes he looks at how the film uses genre to explore social issues of the time in South Korea. Del Toro even explains in detail what social issues the film tackles and breaks down how they’re represented in a few key scenes. Following that are seven deleted scenes with an optional commentary by the director. There are a couple of interesting scenes, including one where it’s discovered a key suspect is hairless, an attribute the detectives are looking for, along with another where we get to see when a key character leaves his job. But, as Bong explains, the scenes either repeat things already mentioned, didn’t really move the narrative, or decreased the suspense of a scene. Still, I thought they were at least great to go through, and I appreciated hearing Bong explain his thinking process behind constructing the film in relation to what to cut out. As a note, the deleted material is presented as a standard-definition upscale, sandwiched between high-def footage that appears in the actual film.
The first disc then closes with the original Korean teaser, trailer, and TV spot.
The second dual-layer disc presents the remaining features.
First is a new 11-minute interview with Bong with translator Darcy Paquet, looking to have been recorded at the same time the director talked about Parasite for Criterion’s own edition. In this one the director talks about the actual case the film is based on and his reaction to when the killer was identified: he admits he was disappointed the killer ended up not looking so “normal” as was suggested in the film. He also talks a bit more about the research he did.
Though Bong doesn’t get terribly in-depth here about the film, that’s more than fine as it works as a nice addendum to his audio commentaries and then the extensive 158-minute making-of documentary that also appears on this disc, originally created for the 2004 Korean DVD edition. Like the more technical commentary, this gets into an exhausting amount of detail, and though it does touch on some of the same subject matter of the crew commentary, this documentary not only has the added benefit of now seeing what was being described in the track, but you also get it from multiple perspectives along with more details not covered in the track(s). It touches on a number of areas, like creating the poster art and the casting process (including footage from auditions and rehearsals, as well as interviews with the actors), the documentary’s more interesting aspect is when it gets into the production design elements, including the CGI effects that were employed, which includes various renderings and models. The documentary also opens with information around the original case and even the play inspired by the same crimes, and how all of that inspired Bong to make his film; he even looked into buying the rights to the play! Again, it is very heavy in the technical details, covering just about everything in the film (even the Nike shoe knock-off), but I did find it all incredibly fascinating, especially when paired with the making-of around Parasite, just to see how Bong has evolved in his use of technology to get exactly what he wants.
Criterion then includes another interview, this time featuring film scholar Jeff Smith talking about Bong’s use of sound in his films, focusing on both Memories of Murder and Parasite. He describes Bong as a “classicist” who, like Hitchcock, prefers total control over what audiences will hear and how they hear it in relation to the story, enhancing things where needed. Smith goes through several sequences in both films to highlight his thoughts. It’s a fine enough addition, though not all that eye-opening.
Far more interesting is the inclusion of Bong’s 1994 student short film, Incoherence, though, as Bong points out in the included 7-minute introduction for the film, the actual translation of the title from Korean is a bit more complicated. The film, he explains, was inspired by Pulp Fiction’s narrative structure, and the 30-minute film does have a similar 3-act (or “episode”) structure featuring what appear to be unrelated stories, though everything comes together in the end. It’s a funny little short, Bong seeming to poke fun at the social hypocrisy that pops up in the world.
That ends up closing the disc supplements off. Criterion also includes an insert featuring an essay on the film and its importance to the new Korean cinema. All-around this edition does a superb job covering the film from a number of angles, all the way from its production to its current standing in both Bong’s career and world cinema.
I can see where the final presentation will irk some: it does have a bit of a digital luster because of the colour grading, but it does replicate a bleach-bypass look effectively enough, and there’s still a decent film look to it. The supplements, both new and old, do an admirable job looking at the film from every possible angle.