In a rural town in South Korea during the mid-eighties, the bodies of two girls are found within a few days of each other, both bound and murdered. The local police are ill-equipped to deal with what seems to be the work of the country’s first serial killer, so a more experienced cop from Seoul is drafted in. But even he cannot stop the body count from rising.
This knockout Korean thriller was loosely based on real-life events, and is a gripping, darkly funny testament of how not to run a police investigation. We’re used to modern screen cops using the latest forensic technology to crack murder cases, but Detectives Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roe-ha) are old-fashioned rozzers, whose interrogation techniques are no more sophisticated than a good kicking and are more interested in getting their picture in the local paper than actually catching the right suspect. So when the two girls are found dead, Park and Cho are quick to arrest a local mentally-challenged boy on some very circumstantial evidence and beat a non-too-convincing confession out of him. These early scenes walk a fine line between the disturbing brutality of their violent methods and outright hilarity at the sheer unprofessionalism of the local force. When the second body is found, the crime scene becomes a scene of surreal chaos – children run around near the body, a farmer drives his tractor over the killer’s footprints, while Park tries desperately to maintain some sense of organisation.
The arrival of Seoul-based Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) at first seems to bring some normality to the case – he has dealt with murder before and has an air of urban sophistication that the country cops lack. But despite his cool, determined demeanour, it quickly becomes evident that he is also out of his depth when a third body is found and they are no closer to finding a suspect. One of the great strengths of Bong Joon-ho’s film is the way in which the director slowly shifts the sympathies of the audience, from finding his protagonists brutish and idiotic to understanding their frustration at being unable to crack the case. The three cops uncover a few clues – each murder takes place on a rainy night, and each victim is wearing red when she is killed. But there is very little forensic evidence left at each murder scene, and even when traces of semen are found on one corpse, the substance must be sent to the US for testing, meaning a delay of weeks and an opportunity for the murderer to strike again.
Memories of Murder is marked by some superb performances, in particular Kang-ho Song, one of South Korea’s most recognisable actors following roles in the likes of JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Shiri. Park is a brute, but unlike the simple-minded Cho, he doesn’t derive much pleasure from mistreating suspects – he just knows no other way. As the case continues, Park comes to respect and aspire to Detective Seo’s more thoughtful approach, even though Seo himself makes a fatal error late in the day that leads to a fourth death. Park and Seo do eventually get a break, but it is more down to circumstance than any cunning detective work, and there are few of the conventional resolutions expected from this sort of the film.
Bong Joon-ho is a director of considerable style; he generates an intense, moody atmosphere and orchestrates some terrific set-pieces. The chase on foot of a potential suspect is particularly gripping, as the three cops race through the narrow streets of the town, their quarry constantly disappearing from view. The murders are not shown and although there are a couple of well-timed shocks, the emphasis here is not on the crimes themselves but on the lingering impact they have on those dealing with them. Memories of Murder is one of the strongest films to emerge from a film industry that has already produced a high number of terrific genre films in the last few years, trading clichés and convention for haunting intelligence.