MEMORIES OF MURDER Criterion Review: Bong Joon-Ho’s Masterpiece, Restored

In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took the world by storm, becoming the first South Korean film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and further garnering a large assortment of (very well-deserved) accolades throughout the year, before being awarded Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020. While Parasite was indeed a monumental accomplishment, Bong’s expansive filmography has been growing for two decades, one notable entry of which being his 2003 masterpiece Memories of Murder.

Charting the work of a police detective (played to perfection by Bong’s frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho) and his colleagues, Memories of Murder traces the investigation of a series of brutal murders in the 1980s, drawing inspiration from the true story of the first serial murder case in South Korea. An incredibly unique cinematic experience, Memories of Murder gradually distinguishes itself from numerous other crime dramas, performing on a level unattainable by its counterparts and consistently sustaining interest through a subversive, ambiguous, and gloriously meticulous narrative. 

After the reveal in early 2020 that Parasite distributor NEON had acquired the rights to Memories of Murder, Criterion subsequently announced the film as a part of an exclusive distribution deal, unveiling Parasite as an upcoming addition to their catalogue as well. While Bong’s latest was given a release under the Criterion label last October, his second directorial feature was announced earlier this year as part of Criterion’s April lineup. An outstanding edition from front to back, it’s complete with beautifully designed cover artwork and a superb collection of supplements that further the appreciation for the main feature. Inside the traditional Criterion Blu-Ray packaging, a leaflet can be found, the cover of which is exquisitely designed with an illustration of an image from the film’s climax.

Video: 4.5/5

MEMORIES OF MURDER Criterion Review: Bong Joon-Ho's Masterpiece, Restored
source: Criterion

Memories of Murder is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:85:1, in a new 4K digital restoration supervised by cinematographer Kim Hyunh Ku, and approved by Bong Joon-ho himself. The new digital transfer was created on a Cintel Blackmagic Design film scanner, and restored using MTI film’s DRS, PFClean, and DIAMANT-Film. While the restoration is certainly bound to be divisive, it’s a clear upgrade over the decade-old original Blu-Ray release in multiple respects, boasting a magnificent presentation that is bound to age pristinely over time.

Much like Memories of Murder itself, this edition of Bong’s breakthrough feature is certainly enigmatic in a multitude of ways. The technicalities layered within the picture quality on this disc are superb, but the new makeover the film has been given during its restoration may come as a shock to viewers expecting a replication of previous releases. Akin to many past restorations that have altered the original color grading, the reception will inevitably be prone to discordance, but this release provides a massive amelioration over prior ones, placing a prodigious emphasis on greenish hues that undeniably change the overall scope of the film, yet feel more purposeful and punctual in the grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, daytime scenes taking place in vast, vibrant outdoor landscapes have been somewhat detrimentally desaturated here, but everything else looks terrific. Black levels and shadows stand out to the eye, as the restoration thoroughly envelops the film’s characters in tenebrous environments that have been practically recontextualized due to the incredible color scheme on display. Memories of Murder is a film grounded in atmosphere, so the new look is a thematic improvement, successfully entrapping the viewer in a void of metaphysical darkness and eliciting a heavier response.

Audio: 5/5

MEMORIES OF MURDER Criterion Review: Bong Joon-Ho's Masterpiece, Restored
source: Criterion

The main feature includes one audio track (Korean DTS-HD 5.1), and a highly superb one at that. An immense improvement from past versions of the movie, this audio track is sturdily immersive and parallels the absorbing visuals it’s accompanied by.

Tarō Iwashiro’s breathtaking score lends itself to the aura of multiple sequences, rounding out the exceptional soundscape with grandeur. Plenty of moments throughout the film balance a visual atmosphere with an auditory one, blending together to birth an entirely fresh scale of mesmerizing proportions, and the 5.1 audio compliments that quite well.

Special Features: 5/5

MEMORIES OF MURDER Criterion Review: Bong Joon-Ho's Masterpiece, Restored
source: Criterion

As if this edition couldn’t get better enough, it’s brimming with an extraordinary selection of special features, more so than a large number of Criterion’s recent output. Each one is a fantastic inclusion in its own right, with half of the supplements taking space on one disc (also containing the main film) and the other half porting over to a second disc.

Disc One includes:

  • Commentaries
    • Director and Crew: This 2003 commentary features director Bong Joon-ho, cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku, and production designer Ryu Sung-hee.
    • Director and Cast: This 2003 commentary features director Bong Joon-ho and actors Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, and Park No-shik.
    • Tony Rayns: Recorded for the Criterion Collection in 2020, this commentary features film critic Tony Rayns.
  • Perfect Cinema: Produced by the Criterion Collection in 2020, this program features filmmaker Guillermo del Toro discussing Memories of Murder and its director, Bong Joon-ho.
  • Deleted Scenes
    • Inspector Jo
    • A Pervert
    • On the Hill
    • Hairless
    • Female Officer
    • Release
    • Departure/Scarecrow
  • Teaser
  • Trailer
  • TV Spot

Disc Two includes:

  • Imagination vs. Reality: In this 2020 Criterion Collection program, director Bong Joon-ho and film critic and translator Darcy Paquet converse about Lee Chun-jae, the real-life serial killer who inspired Memories of Murder.
  • Making Memories of Murder: Made in 2004, this extensive documentary—featuring director Bong Joon-ho, actors Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung, cinematographer Kim Hyung-ku, production designer Ryu Sun-hee, composer Tarō Iwashiro, and others—chronicles the production and release of Memories of Murder.
    1. The Case
    2. Casting and photography
    3. The cast
    4. Lighting and locations
    5. Design and effects
    6. The score
    7. Release
    8. Credits
  • Sonic Precision: In this interview, conducted in 2020 by the Criterion Collection, film scholar Jeff Smith analyzes director Bong Joon-ho‘s use of sound.
  • Incoherence: Restored in 4K resolution by the Korean Film Archive in 2019, this short film was made by Bong Joon-ho in 1994, while attending the Korean Academy of Film Arts.

Contained within the pages of the packaging leaflet is an essay by critic and novelist Ed Park titled “In the Killing Jar”. In the end, it’s a superb ensemble of additions that add a weighty amount of depth and background to the film after watching it.

Overall Score: 5/5

MEMORIES OF MURDER Criterion Review: Bong Joon-Ho's Masterpiece, Restored
source: Criterion

In the years since its release, Memories of Murder has been hailed as one of the finest thrillers ever made as well as a true masterwork of its time, and rightfully so. Bong’s tense, articulate direction and the nail-biting script (which he co-wrote with Shim Sung-bo) alongside vigorous performances from a stellar cast combine to form one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of the 21st century. A terrifying meditation on the psychological anguish provoked in lieu of unresolved justice, Bong’s sophomore outing stands the test of time as one of the most unsettling explorations of humanity at its rawest fragments.

Memories of Murder’s new transfer is irrefutably a much darker contrast to the look the film once had, but the change enables a more rigid atmosphere that stabilizes the narrative tenor, emphatically shifting the ambience as a result. Viewers may be surprised by such a dramatic alteration, but it doesn’t detract from the general experience one iota. In fact, it arguably enhances it. All in all, Criterion’s upcoming edition of Memories of Murder comes highly recommended to both fans of the film and new viewers alike, providing a substantial enrichment on an already flawless feature that ranks amongst the 2000s’ most exceptional triumphs of filmmaking, and further cementing the film’s legacy.

Memories of Murder will be released on Blu-Ray on April 20, courtesy of Criterion.

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