Memories of Murder
2003, NR, 130 min. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha, Song Jae-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Park No-shik.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 13, 2005
American audiences are so used to watching the cat-and-mouse machinations of serial killers and their pursuers on the big screen that it comes as something of a shock to realize this 2003 Korean film is based on the true story of that country’s first-ever such manhunt in 1986. That it remains unsolved to this day only adds to the story’s queerly retro frisson. Memories of Murder takes place not in bustling Seoul but in the Korean countryside, where a group of local cops, led by Detective Park (Song Kang-ho), uncover the body of a woman in a rural drainage ditch. Raped, bound, and dressed in red, she’s just the first corpse in a mounting series of victims murdered by … who? Park, his partner Detective Jo (Kim Roe-ha), and their boss Cmdr. Shin (Song Jae-ho) are under pressure to find the identity of the killer but lack any real leads – the only clue, a footprint in the muddy road, is obliterated early on by an errant tractor – and so Detective Jo offhandedly decides to frame the village idiot (Park). It almost works, but incoming big-city Detective Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) puts the kibosh on the frame-up and forces everyone to rack up overtime by insisting that the real killer is still on the loose. Sure enough, the next time it rains, there’s another dead woman in a red shirt lying dead in a muddy lot. Bong’s film is about as far afield from the clichéd American version of the serial-killer genre as you could possibly get, and it benefits from the sheer oddball lunacy of not only the killer but the cops themselves, who here are viewed as self-serving cretins barely smarter than the Keystone Cops, unable to even theorize about the identity of their quarry with any degree of imaginative precision, and all too eager to put the boot in when the first line of baited questioning fails to produce results. (Detective Park’s partner is notable for the amount of vicious glee he exudes while playing the role of Very Bad Cop; in the end, though, karma leaves him unable to do even that.) Despite the fact that these renegade cops seem way too unsupervised – not to mention untrained – to run a serious police operation of such magnitude, it eventually becomes clear that Bong isn’t trying to paint them as the bad guys at all, but as simple working-class stiffs running up against the limitations of their skills. Even after the arrival of the vastly more professional Detective Yoon, Park and Jo gamely keep up the struggle to unearth more clues (and to keep each new crime scene unspoiled). Their efforts, however, are thwarted at every turn, and so Memories of Murder becomes something of a rainswept Korean koan on both the nobility and futility of persistence in the face of obviously insurmountable odds.