Beginning in the fall of 1986 and continuing for the next four years South Korea was haunted by the nation's first recorded serial killer. Preying upon women in a remote rural community the killer was both vicious and meticulous, strangling his victims with their own undergarments and leaving nothing of any use to the police investigating the crimes. The killer was never caught.
I do not envy any director trying to make a true crime film, particularly not one so high profile and so recent that the crimes still live on in the public consciousness. Stray too far in one direction and you devolve into saccharine sentimentality, go the other direction and you risk crass exploitation. Director Bong Joon-Ho avoided both of these traps by charting an altogether different route: he has made a film that is not about the killer or the crimes or the victims but one that is purely about the police officers charged with the case and the devastating emotional toll it took on their lives. In charting his unusual route Bong has created a bleak masterpiece, one that took home a stack of film awards in its native land but which has been largely neglected on these shores until now.
The film begins with the first body discovered, a woman strangled with her own stockings, raped, tightly bound, and hidden in a drainage culvert. The detective in charge of the case is Park Du-Man (Song Kang-Ho) and it is immediately clear that he is out of his depth, that the entire local police force, in fact, are out of their depth. The crime scene is chaos, crowded by reporters and locals trampling over potentially vital evidence. Park himself is not what you'd call a systematic investigator, scoffing at the scientific approach and trusting in his supposedly unerring eye at picking out criminals just by looking at them. He relies on swagger and bravado and the brute force of his uneducated assisting officer Jo Yong-Gu.
Serving as a foil to Park and Jo is Seo Tae-Yun (Kim Sang-Kyung) a detective from Seoul who has volunteered to assist with the investigation. Seo is the polar opposite of Park - methodical and rational - and it takes mere moments for the two to clash, clashes that lead to the two of them overlooking some key pieces of evidence.
As the film progresses and the body count continues to rise you can feel a sense of desperation slowly settle over the department. Under educated, under manned and woefully under equipped the local force is simply not up to the task. As the realisation that they will not find the evidence they so badly need begins to set in Park and Jo resort to planting evidence to bring in suspects Park picks out with his 'keen eye', suspects they then set out to extract coached confessions from. The process inevitably leads to public humiliation. Soon even Seo begins to lose his faith in reason and just as things bottom out they finally catch a break and settle on a prime suspect, one who truly appears likely to be their man. But can they make it stick? What sets Memories of Murder apart from the crowd are the rich performances from its leads and the sure hand of Bong Joon-Ho. Bong knows exactly what he wants to do with this film and he steers the ship with a firm hand. He has a keen eye for imagery but he consistently avoids the cheap resolve, the quick hit, in favour of a slowly building mood and the film is all the stronger because of it. Song and Kim are both stellar in their roles, giving their characters much needed depth. You can feel their frustration and helplessness continually growing and when the final crushing blow is delivered you can feel their utter despair at being abandoned by a system that they have given their lives to. Bong isn't just asking how this could happen, how someone could be as evil as this killer, but how could a government allow this to happen? How could the police not be given the tools and manpower they so obviously needed to protect the people? The DVD release has been given the standard Palm treatment. The transfer is strong and presented in anamorphic widescreen. The film is presented with both the original Korean language track in 2.0 stereo and an English dub in both 2.0 and 5.1. The English subtitles are solid, clearly translated and easy to read. The disc also includes a reel of cast and crew interviews discussing their characters and the creation of the film as well as an extensive reel of deleted scenes.
Memories of Murder is a minor masterpiece, a film that moved Bong immediately onto Korea's A-list of directing talent. It is richly detailed, beautifully performed and disturbing in precisely the way that people need to be disturbed in from time to time. Don't miss it.