Memories of Murder is a 2003 South Korean crime drama based upon what are regarded as Korea’s first serial killings. It is only the second directorial outing of the now highly acclaimed director Bong Joon-Ho.
In Gyeonggi Province, there are bodies of girls being found raped and murdered savagely. Local detective Park Doo-man, who believes he possesses ‘’the eyes of a shaman’’ and thinks he can tell a criminal by their face, gets the case. He, with his violent, moody accomplice Kim Roi-ha and a methodical investigator from Seoul, Seo Tae-yoon, tussle their way through countless possible suspects while the slayings continue.
‘’Memories of Murder’’ is based on a single case, but showcases the pandemonium the country was going through in those years. Korea was in major turmoil in 1986 with massive democracy and anti-corruption protest movements and the leaders trying to suppress them with all their might. That national anguish and anxiety can be seen here. From the very beginning, we can see how the homicide scenes and crucial evidence is handled carelessly by the police. The detectives and their amateurish, even illegal practices are comically ridiculed. Little references, like the police not having enough personnel because they are too busy suppressing protests, pepper throughout the movie.
Still, the film never fails to remember the gravity of the case it is dealing with. ‘’Memories of Murder’’ is in no way, a traditional mystery where it’s all about the pace and constant punches to keep the viewer on their toes. In fact, what Bong wrote, along with Sung Bo Shim, goes deep inside the minds of people associated with the case. The two detectives, Park and Seo begin with clashing personalities where the latter seems to dismiss the former’s incompetence and the former latter’s big-city snobbishness. But as the plot progresses, we see their character arcs going towards each other’s direction. The film’s dismal spirit surges with time and it is linked skillfully with our characters’ mental conditions. Slowly our clownish but cheerful investigators start to lose hope, becoming more and more desperate. One of the innocent suspects gets crushed by a train and Park literally finds the blood on his hands while his moody accomplice gets suspended, causes a bar brawl and then has to get an amputation. Using an obscure clue, they link the murders to a young worker but need DNA evidence to nail him. Seo calls the laboratory multiple times daily till the DNA test results come. Yet when they show that the suspect is innocent, he is only filled with pure rage and insists that he doesn’t need documents to know, a huge break from his otherwise meticulous ‘’documents don’t lie’’ personality. The film was deliberately shot in overcast weather with multiple scenes in drenched paddy fields to add to its perturbing nature. They even kept Kim Sang-kyung deprived of enough sleep and food to highlight his agony in the later scenes. With exception to the initial and final scenes, the entire film’s bleaching stage was skipped and it ended up as washed-out footage that gives the film its grey, lifeless characteristic.
‘’Memories of Murder’’ is actually linked through a cyclical narrative, with detective Park inspecting a culvert alongside a paddy farm at the start and at the end of the film, equally clueless each time.
In the final scene we see Park, now a jovial salesman with a family of his own, revisiting the scene of the first murder. Talking to a little girl, he realizes the murderer visited there just like him some time ago. With no answers to his last case and no one to point at, Park breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera- searching in our eyes for the Hwaseong killer…*cuts to black*.
‘’Memories of Murder’’ became a cult classic soon after its release and is credited with refocusing the national conversation on the original serial killings. With the real killer now finally behind bars, this modern masterpiece definitely does warrant a watch.