An intriguing mystery is made all the more enjoyable with great direction and casting
“How can a detective have such a bad eye for criminals?”
Detective films come in a variety of flavours, depending on their focus. Some prefer to focus on the eventual reveal of the killer, and introduce a large cast and a big, complex mystery to keep the audience guessing. Others focus more on the victims and the actions of the killer. Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that, instead choosing to look at the detectives themselves, and their reactions to an ever-growing dreadful situation .
Set in Hwaseong, in 1986, a body of a young woman is found raped and murdered, choked with her own clothing. Detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) are stumped on the identity of the murderer, preferring to randomly profile and beat the hell out of random suspects – the uglier and weirder, the better – until they sign confessions. When Seoul-based detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) is sent to help, the three immediately clash. Seo is by-the-book and chooses to analyse all the evidence before jumping the gun, as opposed to his rural peers who are boarish, violent and rude.
As bodies begin to pile up, tensions increase in Hwaseong against the police force, who are being seen as both ineffective and needlessly brutal. The three cops, led by sergeant Shin (Song Jae-ho), act progressively more desperate to stop the killer before they strike again.
Somewhere, I read that Memories of Murder is allegorical to the political situation of the time, with the two lead detectives having names similar to the two presidents who served during the time period the film is set: Chun Doo-hwan and Ro tae-woo. However, I am neither an expert in politics or Korean history – and as with Bong’s other movies – this understanding certainly adds to the experience but not knowing takes nothing away from the experience. Memories of Murder does exceptionally well as a serial killer mystery, featuring an excellent story, cast and director.
It is also based on true events: In the late 80s, a small South Korean city was in the middle of a massive murder investigation: the Hwaseong Serial Killings was the first known case of a single killer of multiple victims with an obvious MO. Still very much in the public consciousness, Bong uses real events to tell another story – that of the three detectives. He chooses this grim topic because of the sense of frustration he can make the characters feel weak, powerless and useless. Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-Kuyng are both great in their roles, playing polar opposites who have their own methods of law enforcement – and while Seo’s methods are by far the best the movie never delves into generic “good cop terrible cop” routine.
In the hands of a lesser writer and director, Memories of Murder could have been a bit boring and more than a bit rote. But Bong Joon-ho and Shim Sung-bo’s script provides us with detectives who aren’t bad, per se. The country ones are violent, a bit entitled and used to quick, easy-to-solve crimes. Policemen have a bit of a bad rep in the town, but it’s hard to see them as bad guys in any respect. They can be narrow-minded and quick to judge (and more than a bit violent towards innocent men), but like Seo they really are trying to do their job and show just as much irritation with being unable to solve the case. Detective Seo is only a flip of the same coin – using logic and reason to advance the case, but harbours a darkness that grows as the future looks increasingly bleak for both the case and for future victims.
All three detectives and even the sergeant in parts are nothing but people with different ethical backgrounds, who deal with desperation differently. We see more proof than not that either of them are really all that different from one another. Bong uses the cast to their fullest extent, having them all bounce off one another while keeping the angle wide enough for us to see their interactions without being distracted. Memories of Murder is an intelligent, patient thriller filled with suspense and enough clues to leave you grasping for more. Bong’s filmmaking style results in an experience that feels almost genuine, like you’re right there investigating alongside the lead characters.
There is a calmness to the way he shows rural life in Korea, which gives it a sense of legitimacy. There are no cut-backs to Seoul for the sake of contrast as you might be prone to see in some lesser films, and instead Seo’s reactions to the different lifestyle are all we need to understand the time and place. Bong’s feel for atmosphere is fantastic, leaving scenes to play out in single takes, using the slightest of camera movements to help shape the tone and ambiance. It’s not uncommon for a single shot to last for two minutes or longer, and frankly with such a strong cast and script, there’s not really a reason to cut away.
Verdict: Memories of Murder is top-quality filmmaking, mixing in a stellar cast, tense story and superb camerawork.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Also known as: 살인의 추억 (Sarinui chueok)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Bong Joon-ho , Shim Sung-bo
Song Kang-ho – Detective Park Doo-man
Kim Sang-kyung – Detective Seo Tae-yoon
Kim Roi-ha – Detective Cho Yong-koo
Song Jae-ho – Sergeant Shin Dong-chul
Byun Hee-bong – Sergeant Koo Hee-bong
Go Seo-hee – Officer Kwon Kwi-ok
Park No-shik – Baek Kwang-ho
Park Hae-il – Park Hyeon-gyu
Jeon Mi-seon – Kwok Seol-yung