When it comes to making thought-provoking crime dramas, Korean director Bong Joon-ho did it right, better than most, actually. Memories of Murder is a thrilling movie whose story is based on real serial murders that took place in South Korea between 1986 and 1991. Unlike a lot of other movies involving murder mysteries, this movie’s mystery remains unsolved. So you can’t go into this expecting a “who dunnit” kind of film, because you’ll never get that answer. Memories of Murder is about the journey, not the end result, which is something similar to what you’d find in movies like David Fincher’s Zodiac. Despite its lack of a definite resolution, this movie won’t leave you feeling unsatisfied as long as you can appreciate the storytelling, with all of its humorous, frustrating, and disturbing moments.
Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and his men find themselves with limited clues, suspects, and resources after a series of murders take place in which women are being gagged with their own underwear, raped, and killed out in a field in Gyeonggi Province. Detective Park and his partner, Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha), use questionable methods of interrogation where they try to beat confessions out of suspects, including a mentally challenged boy who used to follow one of the woman victims around from time to time. Without the use of forensic technology and the inability to collect proper evidence, they find themselves trying to pin the murders on anyone who seems the least bit guilty. Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) is sent from Seoul to help with the investigations. Unlike the other two, Detective Seo is an intelligent man who is determined to find the one who is really guilty of the murders, clearing a couple of Detective Park’s physically abused suspects in the meantime. Some more clues lead the men in a few other directions, but due to insufficient evidence and a bad twist of fate, they cannot succeed in finding the killer.
Anyone who is unfamiliar with Korean cinema is missing out. There are a lot of films, this one included, that tend to stick with me for a long time after watching them. The portrayal of this murder story would be haunting even if it weren’t based on true events. It is presented in a way that still manages to be suspenseful even though it tells you right in the beginning that it is based on an “unresolved criminal investigation.” I still found myself trying to guess who the killer could be. Unsolved mysteries tend to do that to you. It’s scary to think that some people can get away with such atrocities, but it does happen, this is the real world after all. There is no happy ending here, and what you’re left with is a story about the incompetence of the police force and the lack of essential technology that wasn’t available in Korea at the time. They had to send forensic samples to the United States (I think it was Japan in the real story) and wait weeks for the results to come back. This was also during a time when South Korea was under military rule, which makes the disorganization and corrupted methods of the police force, as well as the societal unrest a little more understandable.
The film has a humorous tone throughout, which is set up right in the beginning when Detective Park Doo-man finds a woman’s dead body in a field and a bunch of kids are running around. One kid, in particular, finds it necessary to just be in the way of the investigation, while mimicking everything the detective says and does. It’s a unique way of opening a crime movie, but it makes it clear that we won’t exactly be dealing with your average murder mystery.
This is one of three movies that actor Song Kang-ho worked with director Bong Joon-ho, the other two being The Host and the more recent Snowpiercer. He brings a kind of funny quality to the films that he is in. The way he approaches the murder case is humorous. He’s not trying to be humorous, but he is. Like when he’s yelling at everyone around the crime scene of the second dead woman, calling them fools while they’re tripping and rolling down the banks leading to the scene. Here, you don’t see crime scenes being taped off, forensic specialists taking careful samples, and people taking important photographic evidence. Instead, you see kids running around dead bodies and people stumbling on to crime scenes, ruining the evidence. No one seems to know what the hell they’re doing. You can almost understand why Detective Park resorts to the methods he does. He also thinks that he has a special instinctive ability that will allow him to root out the killer just by looking at him.
However, don’t let the personality of the somewhat eccentric Detective Park fool you into thinking that Bong is trying to take a serious matter and make it into a comedy. Through all the humor that comes with cops being way in over their heads and a rivalry that develops between country cop and city cop, there remains a more serious and desperate undertone that never ceases to exist. Eventually, it becomes clear even to Park that it’s no joking matter, and the more time they take not finding the real killer, the more dead women turn up.
Bong Joon-ho made this into one of the best crime movies I’ve seen. On the surface, it’s light and humorous but underneath, it’s dark and serious. Not too many people can manage a balance like that. Overall, Memories of Murder is an exciting ride with enough suspense and interesting characters to be satisfying even though you know you’ll never have the real answer you’re looking for.