Year released: 2003
Country: South Korea
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Song Kang-ho as Park Doo-man, a lazy detective out of his depth.
Kim Sang-kyung as Seo Tae-yoon, a young and by-the-book detective from Seoul.
Kim Roi-ha as Cho Yong-koo, a violent detective and Park’s partner.
Park Hae-il as Park Hyeon-gyu, a young suspect.
Plot summary: In a fictionalisation of a true-life story, Rural South Korea is plagued by its first serial killer in history. Two brash country detectives follow any lead they can to find the murderer, bullying, extorting and torturing their way through a series of suspects; a third detective from Seoul attempts to bring a more rational approach to the proceedings as the bodies start to mount up.
Where to start with Memories of Murder? Well, a good place would be to point out how criminally underrated it is. It’s not easy to get a copy in the UK, and the DVD cover undersells it as some kind of cheap psychological thriller. What this film needs is a proper Criterion release, or at least a decent standard blu-ray release with a cover that suits it (the home-release poster (above) is impeccable, like most SK film posters).
Let me make this clear: this film is a damn masterpiece. Seeing it once is not enough. I had the fortune to have the opportunity to see it in 35mm at a specialist cinema recently, and I knew it would be great, but I didn’t think I’d be able to like it any more. I was wrong.
Brief fanboying aside, I want to cover some of the themes presented in this film, and the way that the film presents, analyses and develops its characters. The two central detectives, Detective Park (played by the seemingly omnipresent and consistently excellent Song Kang-ho, in what may be his best-ever performance) and Detective Seo, are polar opposites at the start of the film, and continue to develop as such throughout the story.
Seo’s introduction to the film is one of a number of great character introductions throughout the film, and one of the main reasons why it rewards watching more than once: a young woman walks down a quiet country road, and an out-of-focus figure comes into shot, pacing behind her; we feel like we know where this scene is leading. The man catches up to her and asks for directions, but the woman attempts to flee, and ends up falling down a ditch. The man follows. A car pulls up, and the man in the car, who we quickly recognise as Detective Park, gets out and drop-kicks the other man down the ditch. They scuffle until Seo pulls out his police identification – Park is as surprised as us to find out his identity. Bong Joon-ho (also the director of the acclaimed films Mother and The Host, as well as the successful international co-production Snowpiercer and the upcoming Netflix-distributed film Okja) has a habit of playing with the audience’s – and the characters’ – expectations, and this technique is on fine form in Memories of Murder. This misdirection of identity is the start of Park and Seo’s professional relationship, and these misunderstandings become key to the progress of the case. Park drives Seo to the police station, forging some evidence on the way; a pair of shoes that belong to a young man with a learning disability are placed in the mud near the crime scene, creating false evidence – in this moment we are given an insight to the modes of operation of the rural detectives, setting another precedent for the future of the case.
It becomes clear very quickly that Detective Park and his horrifically ruthless and violent partner Detective Cho (a character with another great, character-defining introduction – the first thing he does is kick a suspect out of their chair) could be no different from Detective Seo, who is young, hopeful and operates by the book and has been moved onto this case by his own request. From here, a classic scenario emerges: Park slowly learns from Seo, mostly disowning his corrupt ways, whilst Seo goes the other way; he is convinced that the young Park Hyeon-gyu is the suspect, and even DNA evidence will not convince him otherwise. This quite a simple narrative trick, but is applied so well in Memories of Murder due to the way that the characters develop together, as well as the compelling performances given by the actors. In a way, the audience agrees with Seo: surely Park Hyeon-gyu is the killer, as all of the circumstantial evidence adds up. Before the final confrontation by the train tunnel, we have a number of clever and funny moments on both sides. Detective Park has a subtle but hilarious moment in a bathhouse following up on his theory that the killer is completely hairless, whilst the attempt to spring a trap for the killer ranks as one of the most tense scenes in detective cinema.
There is an underlying subtext to all of this, too. This is no simple detective story; it is an allegory for life under a military dictatorship. The police are underfunded, and are also used as lapdogs, forced (or just given the opportunity, in Detective Cho’s case) to quell student riots. They are essentially seen as a tool of government as a means to an end, rather than the social protectors they are meant to be. In this way, Detective Park can be seen sympathetically – he has never known truly what it means to be an officer of the law, but learns from Seo, and realises how much the law, and justice, truly means to him. On the other side of the spectrum, the city cop succumbs to the futileness of rural policing, allowing the lack of care given to their profession to lead him to attempting to take the easy route out by killing the suspect. In the midst of this are a series of characters that can read as representative of those caught in the middle of this battle between the state and its people: Kwang-ho, the young man with a learning disability who becomes easy picking for the corrupt detectives earlier on – he may hold a vital clue to the case, but his treatment by the police leads to mistrust, ultimately leading to his accidental death; Kwon Kwi-ok, a young female officer who, whilst providing some of the most vital evidence to the case, is mostly cast to the wayside and not included by the police sergeant’s praises; the man who is caught masturbating over women’s clothes, who by all means is an upstanding member of society but is held for many days by the two corrupt detectives and subjected to a series of abuses until he confesses repeatedly to the crimes; and, of course, the young female victims of the killer, who are seen as less important than the suppression of dissent (in one scene in particular, the police call for backup; no luck, the National Guard is quashing another student protest).
All of this adds to a rich portrait of life in South Korea at the time of it being set. The basic thriller element is enhanced tenfold by its use of social examination and, at times, satire. Never forget that Bong Joon-ho is a very funny director: he injects serious subject matter with perfect moments of levity. The discovery of the second body, in particular, is a moment that is far funnier than it should be – Detective Park’s reaction to two of his associates falling down the ditch to the crime scene is perfect, especially considering that one of them is his superior. When Detective Park is critical of professional conduct, you know it must be bad.
This leads me to the cinematography. I won’t say much, as people have spoken on this topic much better and in more depth than I could. I recommend Every Frame a Painting’s video on YouTube, “Ensemble Staging“, which discusses the way that Bong Joon-ho stages his scenes, and includes a number of examples of the fantastic cinematography found in the film. But the cinematography and camerawork is one of this film’s greatest assets; almost every shot has so much to say, and the way that Bong Joon-ho allows for long takes that encompass the entire environment shows his interest in the world that we as humans inhabit. He paints his characters inside the environment, as they are products of it; it is not just the social environment that has lead the central detectives to become disconnected, but also the quiet, haunting fields, the cafés on the edge of town, the small office spaces that they spent their hours in. They are both lost in the environment as well as stifled by it.
So, why does Memories of Murder succeed as much as it does? One of my main arguments is in how it both gives and holds information. Ultimately, the central mystery is left unsolved. There is no resolution for us, and no resolution for the characters. Through all of the character development, they are left where they started: in the dark. This could lead to an unfulfilling movie, but its handling of the subject matter allow for the identity of the killer to play second role to the characters – it is the journeys of Detectives Park and Seo that give the film its backbone, its primary message: how environment, government and culture shape us as people. That search for the unknown can frustrate us, and when the odds are stacked against us, the best of us can break – and the worst of us can find our true potential.
The film ends on a shot I consider iconic in cinema: Detective Park revisits the crime scene many years later; he is now a travelling salesman, but is still drawn to his past. A young girl tells him that she saw somebody else there recently, somebody that looked ordinary. Park looks up, bewildered, and then stares right into the camera. This ambiguous ending has many layers. One is the realisation that maybe they could never have caught the killer, ordinary as he was. Another, possibly the most important, is that Park may well have stared the real-life killer right in the eye; the film was massively successful in its home country, and there is a real chance that the killer went to see it. Did he, though? This, like the film’s mystery, is unknown. This ties the film’s mystery to the real-life case it portrays, in a way that no other film has done. It is irrelevant that we know who the killer is or isn’t. The point is not to know or not to know, but to connect to real life somehow, and to touch the viewer in a way cinema often can’t. It is this holding of information that keeps it true to life; and it is the way that it gives information, equally so, that also keeps it true to life, by showing the reality of life under a dictatorship, and by staring reality directly in the eye and not flinching.
Memories of Murder remains Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece; that he may never outdo it is no shame, as few directors have ever approached cinema in such a real, human way, and with such style and care. It is a film that deserves revisiting, time and time again.