Memories of Murder: masterpiece film about rival detectives in a corrupt society

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

A sober film based on actual events about a group of detectives in rural South Korea investigating a series of grisly rape-murders in the late 1980’s, “Memories of Murder” was the second movie directed by Bong Joonho and is ample evidence of his talent. The plot is very tight and well-paced and the film moves (if perhaps a little slowly and less noisily for fans of American TV crime thrillers) confidently to a stunning conclusion which confirms the viewer’s suspicions that arise about the characters and the crime investigation during the course of the movie, and what the suspicions imply about the nature of South Korean society during the period in question. Along the way the viewer gets the sense of an inevitable culture change from an authoritarian culture based on coercion and unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy to a culture based on reason, the questioning of authority and tradition, and the use of abstract principles as a basis for behaviour and action, skilfully embedded in the familiar crime-show device of pairing two detectives from different backgrounds and with varying temperaments – the “mismatched buddies” – as the country-bumpkin police are joined by a city-slicker investigator from Seoul who brings more up-to-date skills and knowledge on how to pursue the investigation.

Early on we realise that detective Park (Song Kangho) and his colleagues aren’t up to the job of finding the serial rapist/killer when, in investigating the first murder, they accidentally destroy much of the crime scene evidence. Park makes a list of likely suspects and quickly zooms in on the local teenage village idiot Kwangho (Park Noshik) who he and his sidekick Cho (Kim Raeha) bring in for questioning and torture to get a false confession. Detective Suh (Kim Sangkyung) arrives from Seoul to assist the investigation and quickly determines that Kwangho is innocent and sets him free. Though Suh and Park are supposed to work together, mutual suspicion of their methods and approach prevent them from doing so, at least until Suh’s predictions that the killer will strike again and again come true. The detectives chase a number of leads, miss important evidence due to their brawling, arrest another innocent man and then, more by good luck and accident, discover the man (Park Haeil) who may actually be the killer. Autopsy evidence also comes the investigators’ way but they must send the semen samples and the new suspect’s DNA to the US as the appropriate skills and technology are lacking in South Korea.

Park and his country colleagues distinguish themselves early on as inept, lazy, stupid and brutal police overwhelmed by crimes the like of which they have never experienced and which all their knowledge and skill are inadequate to deal with. The viewer soon realises these men have been made the way they are by their society. In the 1980’s South Korea was a highly authoritarian society with a military government; there was little accountability and transparency in government activities affecting the people, and secrecy, corruption, incompetence and an expedient “whatever it takes” attitude to getting things done, leading to bullying, bribery, blackmail and violence, would have been rampant. Institutions responsible for law and order would have been infected by such a culture and the film demonstrates in its later half the public’s resentment of the police for their incompetence and brutality, particularly in scenes in which a drunken Cho causes a ruckus in a local restaurant and the diners leap onto him, causing him to have an injury that results in tetanus and leads to his lower leg being amputated.

Interestingly as the investigation drags on with little to show for progress and the murders continue relentlessly (curiously the public shows few signs of panic and concern but maybe that’s because the killings are being covered up deliberately), Park adopts some comical and pathetic methods of gathering evidence, including consulting a shaman who advises leaving a sheet of mud at the scene of the most recent crime (the mud supposedly forms an image of the killer’s face). At the same time, Suh, frustrated with the people and the organisational culture he has to work with, and the lack of help from outside, resorts to more violent methods of getting results. Viewers can see quickly how good police officers, eager and idealistic at first, become disheartened and disillusioned and end up being absorbed into the culture of violence and intimidation within the police force when the central bureaucracy, interested in looking good rather than being good, is unwilling to supply adequate back-up, resources, education and training to officers in the field. (And the serial killer often cunningly commits his crimes during siren calls when everyone, including the police, must stay indoors.) Eventually Park and Suh do co-operate together after previous temper flare-ups and fights in the office but it’s a case of “too little, too late” and Park eventually realises that even with modern and traditional methods of fighting crime, he and Suh are too far in over their heads with the resources and back-up they have, and that Suh is being corrupted by the stress of the difficult investigation and the failure of the authorities to support them.

As I’ve come to expect of him, Song is an excellent actor here as Park, in turns belligerent, comic, violent and, later in the film, capable of some insight into his behaviour and the situation he is thrust into. He sees that his use-by date has come and gone and it’s time for him to get out of detective work and start afresh. The question is whether Suh can realise the same thing as well and get out before he is too brutalised by police work and ends up another violent cypher in the system. All other actors around Song rise to the challenge of bringing a difficult and thought-provoking real-life CSI story to life and all do a great job. There are moments of humour and comedy as well as sheer horror and tension in the film and these demand versatile actors to carry them off successfully; with Song at the helm, film directors have much of their work done already, as he has a substantial track record of playing multi-faceted characters who can be comic and serious at the same time and it’s no big surprise that directors like Jong and Park Chanwook have frequently called on Song to play the lead in several films and that audiences outside South Korea readily recognise him as his home audiences do.

Visually the film is a treat to watch with beautiful and often moody background scenery of golden fields, lush green grass and dark, wet forests at night, depending on the plot’s requirements, to portray the countryside of South Korea as it might have appeared in the 1980’s. Attention to historical detail in background scenes and the technology used in the 1980’s, the detectives often relying on mini-cassette recorders to record interviews, looks impeccable. The film is almost entirely¬†in flashback and all flashback scenes are in mostly dull shades of earth-based colours: brown, yellow, green and blue with the odd splash of red that calls attention to the serial killer’s quirks.

I’d say if you’ve never seen movies about crime scene investigations and you want to see at least one, try “Memories of Murder” first. It is a historic drama set in a particular period of South Korea’s history when the country was about to undergo a great political transformation from military rule to genuine democracy so there’ll be much that audiences outside that country won’t understand. It would be worthwhile for people to learn some recent Korean history to understand why and how South Korea had a military government in those days and how reviled it was in spite of past achievements in transforming the country from war-torn poverty to an industrial nation. As a film about detectives investigating a series of hideous crimes that they are woefully under-equipped for and which takes a heavy toll on them, it’s mesmerising viewing. One of the four most popular movies for cinema-goers in South Korea in 2003, the film is currently being remade in southern India in the Tamil language with a 2011 release date.

The actual series of crimes on which “Memories of Murder” is based remains unsolved and there were calls within the South Korean government in 2006 to have the statute of limitations extended to enable police to find the murderer.

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