Memories of Murder (2003)

Memories of Murder first published by Movie Gazette

Between the years 1986 and 1991, in a small rural town in South Korea, ten women were raped and murdered. The perpetrator was never found [until Lee Choon-jae, already serving a life sentence for another murder, confessed to the Hwaesong serial killings in 2019], but the huge police manhunt exposed a system of detection which was woefully inadequate, governed less by scientific method than by incompetence, brutality and superstition. Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (Salinui Cheok) follows the work of a team of detectives at the centre of the investigation, and is an unusual combination of police procedural docudrama, ambivalent nostalgia piece, dark comedy and existential thriller.

The film focuses on the contrasting styles of the main police investigators. Park (Song Kang-Ho, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is a local officer whose tools of trade include shamanism and his own questionable intuitions. Cho (Kim Rwe-ha) is another local cop whose four years spent in the ninth grade have taught him that the boot is his own special calling-card against crime. Under the command of Koo (Byun Hee-bong), a publicity-seeking, ineffective sergeant, their investigation is going nowhere, but with the arrival of a replacement sergeant called Shin (Song Jae-ho), and of Seo (Kim Sang-Kyung), a Seoul-based detective whose methodical ethos is that “documents never lie”, new spirit is injected into the search for the killer, and the unlikely partnership of Park and Seo leads to some extraordinary leaps in the dark.

From M to Silence of the Lambs to Se7en, cinema’s concern with the hunts for serial killers has had a long history – but what distinguishes Memories of Murder from the rest is the status of the case that it portrays – not only real, but also still unsolved at the time Bong was making his film. It would be tempting to say that this is a film about the development of a modern police force from its primitive beginnings – or even an allegory about the emergence of South Korea from rustic parochialism to a more internationalist profile – and in a sense it is both of these things. Yet all this is to ignore the film’s emphasis on failure, and its recurring image of men running about in the dark.

In one telling, almost farcical scene, both Park’s consultation of a fortuneteller and Seo’s meticulous collation of police records lead the two men to converge, by coincidence, on the same place and suspect – even though both are probably mistaken. In the absence of any hard evidence, the police are left to flail about, forming wild hypotheses, following up urban myths and acting on their own instincts and prejudices – and while their conjectures are sometimes ingenious and their commitment unquestionable, whenever they try to look this evil in the face, all that they see is their own reflection.

Set in an atmosphere of violent demonstrations, civil defense drills and other curious symptoms of late-Eighties Korea, and with principal characters who are deeply flawed, Memories of Murder is an unusual, if engrossing, film that brings a welcome touch of realism (as well as surrealism) to the serial killer subgenre.

Summary: Darkly surreal study of ordinary evil, based on a real-life hunt for a killer in 1980s Korea.

© Anton Bitel