Based on a real-life series of murders which occurred in South Korea, Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok) is a fictional account of the investigation’s proceedings. Although suspenseful and sometimes creepy, it is not a slasher or horror movie. The serial killer takes second stage to the detectives and their many struggles, including a lack of proper training, incompetence, and infighting.
Director Joon-ho Bong continually changes the film’s tone throughout by masterfully intertwining offbeat, dark comedy with the grisly murders. This unorthodox injection of humor within such a morose story is remarkably effective without ever appearing forced or inappropriate. He also does well in avoiding prevalent serial killer movie clichés, like creating convoluted explanations for the killer’s actions and having the killer send messages to taunt the police.
October 1986: A young woman’s body is found bound and gagged in Hwaseong Gyeonggi, a rural province of South Korea. By the time local police detective Park (Kang-ho Song) arrives, the crime scene is a negligent, chaotic mess. Nothing is cordoned off, no one is wearing gloves, and the suspect’s only footprint is run over by an old man on a tractor. After a second body is discovered, help arrives in the form of Seo Tae-yoon, a big city detective from Seoul. His first introduction is a misunderstanding which results in him getting drop-kicked and arrested by Detective Park.
Much of the film deals with the clash of their personalities and contrasting techniques. Detective Seo is a by-the-book officer focused on the crime’s scientific aspects: collecting physical evidence, profiling the killer, and anticipating his next move. Detective Park, on the other hand, is an ‘old-school’ cop. His means of solving crimes rely on his instinct along with falsifying evidence and beating out confessions.
His ‘effective’ methods embarrassingly lead to false confessions from two innocent people, one being a young mentally challenged man. Cruelly he is beaten and threatened, even being forced to dig his own grave. As depraved and brutal as these actions are, they do lead to some of the film’s many humorous scenes. Especially amusing are the attempts at recording the coerced confessions with the detectives leading the suspects, occasionally correcting their claims along the way. These infusions of comedy prevent the film’s already gloomy story from becoming too grim and dreadful.
The performances are stellar throughout, most notably that of Kang-ho Song, who plays Detective Park with an earnestness and naivety which makes it easy to root for him, despite his unethical investigation techniques. His demeanor, alongside Detective Seo, grows ever more desperate as the story unfolds and another victim is claimed.
Memories of Murder is another wonderful film coming out of South Korea recently to achieve worldwide acclaim. It is a masterfully told story with terrific acting and stellar cinematography with grays and neutrals dominating the screen. Captivating characters along with an edge of eeriness from being based on true events make Memories of Murder a unique and exceptional experience.