Whenever I hear about a man being exonerated of a crime after years or even decades, I always think, they’re never going to catch the guy who actually did it, are they? Sometimes they do – Errol Morris’ great documentary The Thin Blue Line not only exonerated an innocent man, but found the real perpetrator of the murder he had been convicted for – but what about the other cases? And how did the cops go so wrong in the first place? The 2003 Korean film Memories of Murder endeavors to answer some of these questions.
The movie follows Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho), a detective in an out-of-the-way Korean town in the late 1980s who is faced with the difficult case of a serial rapist and murderer. This is based on a real-life case: the first recorded serial murderer in Korean history. Park is outclassed, with no idea how to investigate this sort of killer, so Detective Suh (Kim Sang-kyung) is sent all the way from Seoul to help out. The movie follows them as they explore various leads and possible suspects.
Strangely, Memories of Murder almost starts out as a comedy, as Park and his local compatriots could be described as bumbling at best and straight-up bad cops at worst. They ruin crime scenes, pursue half-baked theories about the killer, and are generally a step behind mostly due to their goofiness. More troublesome is the way that the cops beat and coerce false confessions from their suspects, and bungle their most important leads as the movie builds to its climax; this movie starts out funny but then it swerves towards seriousness later on.
Memories of Murder will remind a great many people of David Fincher’s Zodiac; both films are at first about the hunt for a brutal serial killer and later coalesce around a single subject who tantalized the police, almost within reach. But Zodiac at its most humorous will draw only chuckles, while I laughed out loud many times during Memories of Murder. I still can’t decide if that’s a good thing, because the cops are later undone by many of the same habits that made me laugh at the beginning. It almost seems as though Bong is standing in judgment of his audience, telling us that letting these cops amuse us with their crookedness is what allows some of the tragedies in this movie to happen.
However, one way that this film resembles Zodiac in a positive way is that both movies emphasize how important it is to be absolutely right in the hunt for a killer. As I mentioned above, being wrong means it’s very much likely that the real killer will never be caught in addition to the innocent person’s life that is ruined. The cops in Memories of Murder become even more certain of their best suspect than the San Francisco PD was of Arthur Leigh Allen, to the point that, during a murder late in the film, I believed that I saw that character’s face when in fact it was never shown.
Bong demonstrated his mastery over me twice: first in “incepting” me in that scene, next in convincing me that the suspect deserved his fair chance from these police. That’s why he’s the best director working in Korea today; not only do his films look fantastic, but they have a perfect grasp of visual storytelling. This is a movie which effortlessly leads the audience exactly where it wants them to be without feeling manipulative, and then delivers the goods once they get there.
“The goods” in this case is a climax which is possibly too melodramatic. It’s well-done, sure, but there’s just a strange, out-of-body sort of feeling when you see an ending this serious in a movie that was making you guffaw an hour earlier. It’s that way with all of Memories of Murder: the material is in the hands of a master, but I just wasn’t sure that it was the right material.
Reviewed by Mark Young