(Google Play Streaming, November 2018) If you’re watching a police procedural, there’s a presumption that the criminal will be caught at the end of the movie. Filmmakers can mess with that convention, as they can end a romantic movie with the leads not getting together, but those who do this usually want to make a point and deliberately expose themselves to grumblings from the audience. Memories of Murder is a South Korean crime thriller film intentionally designed to leave audiences unsettled—the 131 minutes-long film is a careful recreation of a 1980s police investigation, but even the investigative breakthroughs don’t lead to a satisfactory conclusion, with an ending that keeps the murders unresolved. It’s adapted from real events, so there’s some veracity here—but it doesn’t make it any less enraging as a movie. [October 2019: In a rare case of reality being more satisfactory than fiction, it turns out that forensic evidence decades after the murders has led to the identification, and later confession of the serial murderer who inspired the film.] Ending aside, writer/director Bong Joon-ho does manage to turn in a competent police procedural—the details are well chosen, there is some character development, various police methods are shown, the sense of time and place is convincing and the film does manage to attain its objectives, even if those objectives aren’t necessarily the satisfaction of the audience. Memories of Murder is one more piece of evidence regarding the vitality of South Korean cinema in the twenty-first century, and a memorable crime thriller in its own right.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Much-ballyhooed as a more ambitious kind of Netflix original project (as in: a major director’s film approved and financed by Netflix rather than them buying the distribution rights of an independent production), Okja also represents the latest in Bong Joon-ho’s typically scattershot blend of comedy, action, drama, horror and irony. Decently budgeted, Okja presupposes the existence of genetically modified super-pigs, leading to animal activists trying to prevent their exploitation by a heartless corporation. Obviously, Okja‘s anti-animal abuse themes are often undistinguishable from a recognizable vegan agenda, but don’t let that stop you from sampling what it has to offer. Okja itself is an often-delightful CGI creation, a creature bred for meat but designed for cuteness. That balance informs the rest of the film, as it veers between horror at animal exploitation (with a forced-breeding scene that’s as horrifying as anything else in movies this year) and good-natured charm at the creature and the efforts of a heroic ragtag band of activists at saving it. Intentionally, Okja itself is uncomfortably semi-sentient, bringing us to the uncanny valley of what’s dumb enough to eat even for confirmed carnivores. Tonal shifts are part of the Bong Joon-ho experience after all, and if his previous films have already been a bit challenging because of the way they go from one genre to another, Okja is a magnified instance of the same. The Anglo/Korean cast is wonderfully eclectic, with Ahn Seo-hyun in the lead role with Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Giancarlo Esposito and Jake Gyllenhaal being some of the best-known names recognizable to a western audience. Challenging, uncomfortable, surprisingly enjoyable at times and just as surprisingly disgusting at others, Okja is not the kind of film to watch on a lark. But it’s a good thing that Netflix can get behind such unconventional projects.