Memories of Murder

Reviewed by Darren Horne

Some Spoilers

This highly acclaimed film by debut director Bong Joon-ho won best new director award at the San Sebastian Film Festival and was a box office smash in Korea.

It follows the story of rural detective, Park’s, (Kang-ho Song) unprofessional response to the true story of Korea’s first serial killings which took place in 1986.
These murders were complicated and pre-meditated, taking place on rainy nights after a particular song had played on the radio, and involving the fetishistic binding and gagging of the female, red clothed, victims.

The local police response is to plant evidence, beat suspects for a confession, and consult a Shaman.

Luckily an educated detective, Seo, (Sang-Kyung Kim) is sent in from Seoul, who believes in scientific methods and logically analysing evidence. This sets up much of the films tension due to the friction between the two leading detectives individual approaches, which come down to the battle between instinct and science.

The film is certainly well constructed with strong performances from the entire cast, but it is ultimately unfulfilling. It is aimed firmly at the Korean audience, which may mean that the cultural differences form a barrier between the characters and some Western viewers. Whatever the reason the film remains un-engaging due to the difficulties in emoting with the protagonists.

The film also covers old ground, with themes that have been covered a thousand times before in more original ways. Instead of looking like a film set in 1986, it gives the impression that it was made in that year.
In typical buddy movie fashion the two detectives begin to learn from each other, and about the nature of their profession. The philosopher Nietzsche states that those who do battle with monsters must take care that they do not thereby become a monster, which is relevant here as Seo begins to throw off his logical methods in favour of beating the suspect he feels is guilty. Meanwhile Park relies less on instinct and leans more towards the logical and analytical approaches.

This coupling of opposites had the opportunity to be interesting viewing. However, perhaps the films biggest downfall is also the one aspect that gives it any originality. This is based on a true story, a story in which the killer was not found. This means that the story can only be told from the point of view of the police, leaving the audience in the same frustrating position as the detectives. In thrillers of this type it is customary to have a non restrictive narrative, so that the audience can see what the killer is plotting even if the identity is never revealed. It then becomes a series of moves and counter moves, a puzzle to be solved, rather than a frustrating journey of banging your head against a wall, in which no questions are answered.

There are touches of humour that lighten the heavy mood, but it is perhaps the scenes that are not supposed to be funny, such as some of the violent assaults by the detectives, that become the most comedic due to their slapstick tendencies.
Another well trodden theme is that it is the ordinary person that commits the most extraordinary acts of violence. Park is sure that the killer must be a pubic hair shaving psychopath rather than, as the audience will have already guessed, an average person.

Parks realisation of this is handled competently in the films haunting closing scene. Twenty years after the murders Park has changed careers and is now a salesman that happens to pass by the first crime scene of the murders. Whilst he is there a young school girl comments that another man had been their recently and spoke of how he had done something at that location long ago and wanted to remember it.

When Park presses for a description she replies “ordinary”, which is the moment of enlightenment for this character, who then stares, not at the camera lens, but into the audience, where the killer may well be sitting.

Score 2/5