“Memories of Murder” broke box office records in its native South Korea. The film, based on an actual police case that is still unsolved to this day, has achieved international acclaim and might just be the most hyped Korean film since “Shiri”. As was the case with the other movie, “Murder’s” popularity has a lot to do with its local appeal, and most international audiences won’t be aware that there’s more to the movie than the serial killer genre on display. “Murder” is one of the few films to juggle quirky comedy and realistic crime well; but it’s much more ambitious than that if one really pays attention to the background.
“Memories of Murder” opens in 1986 in the Korean countryside, where two local women are found murdered in similar fashion. Detectives Du-man Park (Kang-ho Song) and Yong-gu (Roe-ha Kim) are put on the case, but it becomes quickly apparent they have neither the skill nor the temperament for the job. After an attempt to pin the murder on a mentally challenged man goes awry, the cops reluctantly accept the help of Tae-yun Suh (Sang-kyung Kim), a cop from Seoul who has come offering his assistance. Suh thinks they have a serial killer on their hands and sets to prove it. Meanwhile, Park and Yong-gu are already looking for someone else to pin the crimes on so the whole thing will blow over.
At the heart of the movie is Kang-ho Song (“JSA”) as Park, whose lack of police talent isn’t an exception, but the rule. Everyone around him is not up to the task, including the police chief. This is most evident in the film’s first half, where Park and Jo struggles to do simple things like keep kids from trampling over a crime scene. Later, the cops fail to stop a tractor from driving over a potentially valuable piece of evidence. If bungling cases were crimes, these guys would be on death row. In fact, the only person who deserves an exemption is female cop Gui-ok (Seo-hie Ko), but the men of her precinct treat her mostly as a glorified maid.
As mentioned, “Memories of Murder” is one of the few movies that manage to straddle comedy and crime with great ability. The last movie to do this was “Public Enemy”, which managed to be funny and brutal at the same time. “Murder” goes for stark reality when it comes to the killings, but plays it goofy and loose with everything else. After failing to “convince” a suspect to allow himself to be prosecuted, Park theorizes that the murderer is a hairless Buddhist monk living in the monastery nearby. Later, he seeks divine guidance from a fortuneteller, but ends up badgering the woman to look at his makeshift mug book and pick out a face.
Much of the movie’s police work may seem primitive to viewers raised on Fincher’s “Se7en” and weaned on the high-tech crime-solving prowess of “CSI”. How does Park corral his first suspect? Simple: his girlfriend mentions a name to him after sex. And how does Park encounter his next suspect? He’s in the woods with Jo using magic charms to magically discover the face of the killer, when the suspect wanders into the area and masturbates at the crime scene while wearing women’s underwear.
Less successful as a main character is Sang-kyung Kim as Suh. We see a lot of Suh as he goes about trying to solve the murders, but we never really get to know him as a person. Suh is out of his depth because he’s saddled with cops that shouldn’t be cops, and trying to solve murders committed by an efficient and intelligent killer. Despite all of his cerebral problem-solving abilities, Suh ends up just as stump as Park and the thoughtless Jo, whose idea of “police investigation” is to kick first and punch later. In any case, by the end of the film my memories of Suh seemed to fade away and I really had a hard time remembering that he was ever there.
“Memories of Murder” is directed by Joon-ho Bong with cinematography by Hyeong-gyu Kim (“One Fine Spring Day”). It’s a technically accomplished film, with some gorgeous country scenery to be found. But while the crime and humor take center stage most of the time, the film offers a subversive undercurrent for those with the background to appreciate it. The ’80s was a time of social upheaval in South Korea, as the student populace gained strength and courage and began protesting the military dictatorship with greater frequency and force.
The film gives us this ongoing civil strife in spurts, always careful to keep them in the background — at least until a climatic free-for-all at a restaurant brings all the tension to the forefront. If one wasn’t aware of Korean political history, especially in the last 20 years, this entire subplot will come across as minor diversions that seem to have little to do with the ongoing police investigation. Context is needed to really appreciate what the writers were going for here. And yes, there is more to a main character’s leg getting amputated than meets the eye.
At any rate, the film could still work as just a serial killer movie, although modern audiences might find it a bit lacking. Sometimes “Murder’s” investigation borders on the mundane, and things don’t really pick up until 90 minutes into the 2-hour movie. The film closes with a short coda that takes place in 2003; it’s supposed to supply answers, or maybe it just introduces more questions.
“Memories of Murder” is one of the more ambitious films to come out of Korea. It doesn’t do everything it does successfully, but it probably succeeds more than it fails. It’s a decent crime film, but an even better social drama.
Joon-ho Bong (director) / Joon-ho Bong, Kwang-rim Kim, Seung Bo Shim (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-ho Song …. Park, Du-man
Sang-kyung Kim …. Suh, Tae-yun
Roe-ha Kim …. Jo, Yong-gu
Seo-hie Ko …. Kwon, Gui-ok