Memories of Murder – 살인의 추억
Director: Bong Joon-Ho (봉준호)
Cast: Song Kang-Ho (송강호), Kim Sang-Kyung (김상경), Kim Roe-Ha (김뢰하), Byeong Hui-Bong (Byeong Hee-Bong, 변희봉), Park No-Shik (박노식), Park Hae-Il (박해일)
Every so often, a film comes along that is utterly mindblowing in its storytelling, characterizations, and lasting impact. For me, Memories of Murder is such a film, one that compels the viewer to contemplate what they are watching as they watch it and one that greatly impacts those that take the initiative to understand its importance as both a masterpiece of filmmaking and a distinct and notable South Korean text. To those who are unfamiliar with Korean culture, popular culture, and history, I hope this film will motivate you to learn all that you can. No jokes whatsoever, this tale of South Korea’s first recorded serial killer is an absolutely remarkable film, thanks in part to what is perhaps Song Kang-Ho’s best performance to date, atmospheric cinematography, and a chilling score from Taro Iwashiro (岩代 太郎). But easily the film’s most outstanding features is the relationship between the characters and the time and place in which they inhabit. In the midst of a military dictatorship, detectives from different parts of Korea do all in their power to catch a murderer in spite of societal limitations. The portrayals of the detectives in this manner and the development which they undergo cast a critical eye on misguided law and order with a biting sense of irony.
The South Korea that we know today, that is, the vibrant, booming, cultural hub, is relatively young. As recently as the late 1980s, when this film takes place, South Koreans were under a military dictatorship. While not as suffocating as those immediately following the Korean War, it still brought with it civil defense drills, in which electricity was shut off and people were forced to stay indoors for the duration of the drill, and ensured that the military and other law enforcement agencies had to devote a majority of their resources to putting down a myriad of protests. This is the climate in which Memories of Murder takes place. Beginning with the discovery of a woman, found raped, bound, and gagged underneath a concrete slab in between a barren road and a rice field in rural Hwaseong, what is thought to be a routine case becomes an unnerving mystery – unnerving in the sense that this and the related crimes go unsolved (no secret here). Detective Park (Song Kang-Ho) is the officer on the scene, and watching his lack of control over the crime scene provides the audience everything they need to know about his character and how law enforcement was sometimes conducted. He is sloppy, unconventional to a fault, and does anything to get results – whether it be torturing suspects or planting evidence. Here’s the opening scene in the film. Be sure to note the unsettling comic elements (especially the group of young boys playing with a crucial piece of evidence) amidst the film’s immediately apparent style:
When it becomes clear that this, and the discovery of the body of another young woman, are producing no leads (or that Detective Park is unable to discern any viable leads through his shoddy investigation), Detective Seo (Kim Sang-Kyung) is brought in from Seoul to assist. He quickly deduces through observation that all of the women, aside from the modus operandi in which they were murdered, were all wearing red on the nights they were abducted. And a cursory glance at weather conditions on the nights of the murders shows that each was done in a rainstorm.
Meanwhile, taking offense at Seo’s presence and devaluing his less primitive forms of investigation, Detective Park continues on with his own investigation. With the help of the even more brutish Detective Cho (whose talents revolve around beating confessions out of suspects), he effectively kidnaps suspects with occasionally loose connections to the actual crimes committed. For example, there’s the creepy middle-aged man who goes to the scene of one of the crimes to masturbate, preferring the allure of real sexually violent crimes to artificial pornography. He has no connection to the crimes, but this doesn’t stop Park and Cho from literally hanging him upside down and convincing him that he is the culprit.
But then there’s the suspect Baek Kwang-Ho (Park No-Shik), a mentally disabled young man who eerily recounts the gruesome details of one of the murders while Detectives Park and Cho force him to dig his own grave as a threatening maneuver. He represents a central figure in Park’s character arc, for Park initially has no qualms about framing him for the murders to get results, even going so far as drag him to a crime scene for an empty reenactment for the press. This is what Song Kang-Ho effortlessly brings to his character, a natural sense of invulnerability and infallibility. Park claims he can spot a guilty person merely by looking into their eyes. Because no evidence (such as pubic hairs) is found at the crime scenes, he is convinced that the culprit must be a Buddhist monk, or at least an individual with a shaved nether region, which prompts him to spy on men in a communal bath. These character traits naturally seem ridiculous, but Song makes it believable. This also makes his inevitable change, a change which sees Park attempt to conduct more legitimate police work and which culminates in the absolutely mind-bending and heartbreaking final frame, all the more gripping.
Opposite to Detective Park and Kwang-Ho is Detective Seo and Park Hyeon-Gyu (Park Hae-Il), the film’s most credible suspect. But whereas Detective Park becomes more civilized, Detective Seo begins to rely on more physical tactics such as intimidation and violence, especially when all legal procedures at his disposal (including DNA testing from a laboratory in the United States) fail to indict the most obvious suspect. From a narrative perspective, Detective Seo’s dilemma is simply brilliant drama. It plays against age-old expectations that “the good guys always win” and provides for an emotional release when Seo’s anger and frustration reach a fever pitch.
The transformation of Detectives Park and Seo are but a small part of the film’s appeal. At its heart is an interesting dialectic, where the police are constrained by procedure and limited by the oppressive and volatile cultural climate in which they are trying to operate. But on the other hand, despite both detectives’ initially unshakable beliefs in their respective methods, the film is indeed about choice and human infallibility. This is what makes Memories of Murder such a memorable experience. We know for a fact that these murders are still unsolved, so the drama comes from the relationship between the strong-minded characters and the insurmountable odds which gradually weaken their resolve. The final frame, therefore, acts as an indictment out of pure desperation (you’ll understand when you see it) and perfectly concludes the film.
After reading through this review before publishing it, I really don’t think I have embellished this film enough. For me, enough good things cannot be said about Memories of Murder, for this is the type of film which other, lesser filmmakers can only aspire to create. Bong Joon-Ho shows why is one of the most talented filmmakers working anywhere today. The filmic aspects are all uniformly excellent, from the cast to the cinematography, but more important is that this is a film that feels complete despite the unsolved crimes on which it is based. By complete, I mean to say that its narrative structure makes a full circle. Much like Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in which his lovable character The Tramp begins the film with little money and shabby clothes and ends it having struck it rich but still in his shabby clothes (to make sure he remains a relatable icon for huge masses of moviegoers and for dramatic purposes), Detective Park changes and develops, but finishes the film very much where he left off. This is the essence of classic storytelling. In The Gold Rush, the purpose was to show that fame and fortune did not change Chaplin’s character. In Memories of Murder, it is emblematic of the compelling nature of the events and acts as the impetus for Park’s final act of desperation.
In short, Memories of Murder is an exceptionally intelligent film, and one on which you most definitely not miss out.