A woman has been brutally raped and murdered. Her body was shoved into a drain ditch. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) stares at her with uncertainty. He’s not exactly incompetent, but he’s never had to deal with this type of crime before. He’s in over his head and he knows it. He yells at a young boy to go away. The boy stays and repeats every word the detective says, mocking him. Someone points out a shoe print in the mud near the crime scene and in a bravura tracking shot the camera sweeps over a large field detailing the chaos that sprawls out before Park. A policeman falls down a hill; cops, journalists, and on-lookers trample all over the scene. Forensics is nowhere to be found. That footprint is run over by a passing truck. Park screams to no avail. Nobody seems to know what they are doing. Nobody does know what they are doing. This is a small village. This type of thing has never happened before. But it keeps happening. More and more women are found raped and murdered in the area over the ensuing weeks and months.
Memories of Murder (2003), the second film from South Korean director Bong Joon ho, is often compared with David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). It is an obvious comparison as both films meticulously detail the investigation into a serial killer who had never been caught (at least at the time of filming, Lee Choon-jae has since confessed to the murders depicted in the Bong film). They are both beautifully shot and acted and are more concerned with the psychologies of those looking to catch the killer than the killer himself. But Bong’s film is looser, funnier, more political, and less obsessed with obsession than Fincher’s film. I’d be hard-pressed to say which is the better film, but they’d make a great double feature.
Detective Park and his partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) aren’t above beating a confession out of anybody who even resembles being a suspect. They torture a mentally handicapped boy because he used to follow one of the victims around town. They hold another man captive for days forcing a confession out of him.
Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a more experienced detective from Seoul, joins the investigation. He’s appalled by the violent methods of these backwater cops, but he’s no more successful in finding the killer than they are. None of the men pay much attention to Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Go Seo-hee) whose good ideas are often cast aside due to her being female. Masculinity is one of the major themes Bong investigates in this film along with the real-life serial murder case. Cho is prone to violence, ready to punch and kick a man rather than actually talk to them. Park shows at least some restraint but has no problem with torturing a confession out of a man if he looks the least bit guilty (which is usually determined by a look into the suspect’s eyes, and nothing more). Seo begins the investigation by the books, but by the end of the film, his inability to solve the crime leaves him feeling impotent and turns him to violence.
One of the lead suspects is soft-spoken with a pretty face. He’s considered guilty from the start as if soft hands make one a serial rapist and killer. Anyone considered beneath these men is beaten down, either physically or verbally. Over and over again, they turn to violence and anger to vent any inadequacies they feel.
All of this takes place amidst social strife. The police chief is unable to get any men to help with the search because most of the force is out trying to quell student protests against the real-life totalitarian government. Bong seems to be indicating that these brutal police practices were allowed to be due to the federal government’s overall laissez-faire attitude towards human rights.
At the time of the film’s release, the real killer was still at large. The film once again finds similarities with Zodiac with an ending that is uncertain. It is interesting to watch and think about the film now, that someone has confessed and is behind bars. It is no less effective though, as the story and Bong’s filmmaking are impeccable. It is quite something to realize this was only his second film as it is made by a steady and most assured hand. Scenes like the aforementioned tracking shot at the beginning of the film aren’t showy, but they present expertise at both technique and artistry. Much like Zodiac, the cinematography is often dark, but beautiful even as it illuminates the darker shades of the human soul.
The acting is strong throughout, with Song Kang-ho (a regular in Bong’s films) being excellent. His take on the detective is ever fascinating, playing him as both dimwitted and violent, but with an understanding that he could and should be better.
This new Criterion release of Memories of Murder is the perfect way to dive deep into the film and into the filmmaker himself. It comes with a new 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Kim Hyung Ku and approved by director Bong Joon Ho, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. When screenshots were first released, there was much ballyhoo over how much greener this transfer looked over previous releases, but as this has the director and cinematographer’s approval I’m good with it. Whatever the reasons for the difference, this version looks gorgeous.
Extras include a 2003 commentary from Bong and members of the cast and crew. There is a new interview with Bong in which the director talks about his feelings on the film now that the killer has been caught. Guillermo del Toro discusses the film in a new interview. There are deleted scenes, trailers, and TV spots. Also included is a 2004 documentary on the making of the film and the director’s student film Incoherence, plus a nice booklet with an essay on the film.