“Our land’s the size of my dick. Korean detectives investigate with their feet.”
Bong Joon-ho, a well-respected South Korean director, doesn’t mind delayed gratification, nor leaving his audience in the dark.
Joon-ho has made eight films, but I have only seen two: this one, and Snowpiercer, his first English-language film. Memories of Murder is stronger. Not only is it rooted in reality — the plot is based on a string of murders in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, South Korea that took place from 1986 to 1991 — it’s got more nuance.
Where Snowpiercer progresses at an increasingly rapid pace, with more attention put on spectacle than story, Memories of Murder is almost entirely based on character, and setting.
There are different rules in Hwaseong. Police officers harass whoever they take in with no regard for the law or the many potential consequences. Hwaseong also has “the largest area of farmland” in the Gyeonggi province. This is important.
Detective Park Doo-man (played by Kang-ho Song) believes he can look into the eyes of a suspect and tell if they are the culprit. His partner, Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha), will never have enough concentration to take the time to stare into anyone’s eyes. He flips desks to get a reaction. He batters half of the people he meets. He’s a liability who’s strengths don’t outweigh his weaknesses.
Memories of Murder opens with Doo-man looking into a sewer drain at the body of a deceased young woman. Children play around him. One imitates him as he attempts to relay a message to another officer. This is how easy it is in the 1980s for an investigation to go awry. Soon, another body shows up. Doo-man and Yong-koo throw official methods of interrogation out the window and in their place beat up, verbally abuse, and trick their suspects, one of which is a mentally disabled young man with a burnt face. Their superior, Sergeant Shin Dong-chul (played by Jae-ho Song), decides they need a third detective to help sort through the growing mass of evidence confusing the case. This third detective, Detective Seo Tae-yoon (played by Kim Sang-kyung), is their best option. He’s smart. He treats documents like they’re the bible, and he’s the first detective to realize they’re not dealing with two unrelated murders, they’re dealing with a serial killer.
From that point on, the game changes. Every time they learn something new about the killer’s MO — he likes women in red, he kills in the rain, he kills when a certain song plays on the radio — they scramble to piece it all together. They try and bait him, and then they return to the scene of a third murder. Heads continue to roll as the men repeatedly pick the wrong suspect to pursue.
Despite the trouble the detectives have, the movie never drags. A lot like Se7en, a David Fincher film that shares more than just its serial killer story with Memories of Murder, the audience learns more about the detectives when they’re in their worst place. This means the further the detectives are from finding the serial killer, the more vulnerable they become, and we begin to care about them. At one point or another, each must reckon with the fact that their narrow methods of operation are futile.
The mechanics of this film fit its genre perfectly. It’s a crime thriller, which means there are earned scares that come from long forgotten setups, powerful motifs, and well-crafted shots. Shot after shot, Memories of Murder proves it is the bar by which other cinematographers and choreographers must aspire to pass. Its staging is so strong, in fact, Vancouver’s own video essayist Tony Zhou uses it as the sole example for this aspect of filmmaking.
I would suggest watching the essay after seeing the movie, which will no doubt leave you hungry, just like Detectives Doo-man and Tae-yoon.