The New Cult Canon: 'Memories of Murder'
Bong Joon-ho's tonally daring procedural revisits South Korea's first serial murder case.
“Do you see this kind of thing in Seoul often?”
“Never.” — Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-kyung, Memories of Murder
As the Korean New Wave started bearing down on the festival circuit in the early 2000s, the one common feature, particularly among the directors dealing in genre cinema, was the sense that anything could happen tonally. It wasn’t just that the serious and the silly could co-exist in the same film, but they could even mingle in the same scene, as if there were no set boundaries for how characters were supposed to feel—or how films themselves were expected to behave. The 2005 Im Sang-soo film The President’s Last Bang, for example, spins a ribald erotic satire out of the real-life assassination of President Park Chung-hee and the calamity that followed. And when Bong Joon-ho broke through with his effects-driven creature feature The Host the following year, he included a scene of a family mourning a loss by wriggling comically on a gymnasium floor. All feelings can co-exist on screen, as they do in life. Viewers have to manage the cognitive dissonance.
Two years before The Host became a crossover hit, sending Bong on a path that would eventually win him an Oscar for Parasite, the first foreign-language film to even get Best Picture, he experimented with the same tonal queasiness with Memories of Murder, a serial killer procedural that occasionally doubles as a slapstick comedy with fish-out-of-water elements. Working from a Kim Kwong-rim play called Come to See Me, Bong was grappling with the Hwaseong serial murders, a series of 15 murders and sexual assaults in a rural province that went unsolved for decades. (The case would eventually be solved over 30 years later.) The scenario was analogous to the Zodiac killings in the United States, but with the crucial distinction that the very notion of serial murder wasn’t something that had happened in South Korea. There was no precedent for the terror that rippled through the area at the time, and no road map for how to solve the case. It was, in every possible regard, an inexplicable phenomenon.
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There is sadness in Memories of Murder, of course. There is frustration, anger, and desperation, too, as the search for the killer comes up empty and more young women turn up raped and murdered in the countryside. And yet there is also comedy in witnessing two local inspectors bungle their way through a case far beyond their skill sets and in the arrival of a big-city detective who can barely hide his contempt for these yokels who have no idea what they’re doing.
The dynamic seems comparable to the excellent 1992 American noir One False Move, when a sheriff (Bill Paxton) in small-town Arkansas tries to take the lead in a homicide case that lands in his area, only to get brushed off by the LAPD detectives who consider him an amateur and a nuisance. Except One False Move isn’t a comedy, despite Paxton’s typical bluster in the role. And while Memories of Murder does eventually bend toward tragedy, Bong frees himself to see the absurdity of a situation where a couple of hayseed detectives are thoroughly overmatched. How could they be expected to know what to do? What’s happening in Hwaseong has never even happened in Seoul.
Memories of Murder opens in the fields outside a small town on October 23rd, 1986, with local detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) peering beneath a concrete-covered trench to find a woman’s bound and naked body crawling with ants. A band of curious children has gathered around him, starting what will become a pattern of mucked-up crime scenes. When a second body surfaces later, the contamination grows all the more absurd between the phalanx of reporters and gawkers closing on the body, a tractor running over the one footprint that Park had circled in the muddy road, and the forensics guy literally tumbling down an embankment. Back at the office, Park flips through crime photos and boasts of the “shaman’s eyes” that make him special. Though when someone tests his incredible instincts by pointing to two men and asking which one is a suspected rapist and which is the victim’s brother, he gets it wrong.
Park’s partner Cho (Kim Roi-ha) is far less sophisticated. His go-to investigative technique is to beat confessions out of suspects. In perhaps the film’s funniest moment, Cho spots a stranger off a country road who’s gone down to help a young woman, mistakes him for a predator, and recklessly drop-kicks him in the head. That stranger turns out to be Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), the seasoned detective from Seoul who has arrived to bring the case under control. Seo stands back when Park and Cho question Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik), a mentally disabled man whose obsession with one of the victims makes him a suspect. Seo even bites his tongue when Park leads Baek through a confession that seems convincing, but has clearly been coerced. It’s only when Seo points out that Baek’s webbed hands would make it impossible for him to strangle anyone. And it’s back to the drawing board.
Still, Memories of Murder doesn’t settle lazily on the contrast between dopey rural sleuths and their sophisticated big-city counterpart, and it gradually sobers up as the bodies mount and the leads grow colder. There’s a subtle convergence that happens between Park and Seo, where Park starts to meet the moment more thoughtfully and Seo grows more emotional, particularly when a suspect emerges that ticks a lot of boxes but proves to be a slippery customer. The second half of Memories of Murder has the feel of a David Fincher thriller—a post-Seven, proto-Zodiac in many respects—in how it holds a palette drained of color and bears down on the psychological impact a serial murder case has on the men who have to live with it long-term.
Song Kang-ho was a rising star in Korean cinema at the time, having appeared in films by Kim Jee-woon (The Foul King) and Park Chan-wook (Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), but Memories of Murder was his first role in what has become a long collaboration with Bong, who has put him at the center of films like The Host, Snowpiercer and Parasite. With his rounded face and lumbering gait, Song is excellent at playing buffoons, which he does when called upon in all of his films with Bong. But those same soft features can suggest sensitivity and soul, and the major arc of Memories of Murder is Park’s growth into a detective who internalizes the gravity of the case and learns to suppress his foolish impulses. It’s an extraordinarily moving performance, delicately counterbalanced by Kim Sang-kyung’s work as Seo, whose emotions run hotter as the bodies pile up and his frustration mounts. In the end, we arrive at an unlikely place where it’s Park stepping in to show some restraint.
The unsolvable nature of these crimes lingers like a blood stain in Memories of Murder. Perhaps that stain would have been permanent on this community regardless of whether the killer had been brought to justice. A country without serial murders would have to adjust to this new possibility, especially when the culprit hasn’t been caught and vulnerable young women are having to look over their shoulders. In the beautiful coda, set in 2003, Park returns to the first crime scene, having changed careers and become a father. A little girl tells him about another man who was poking around the area, talking about something he’d done in the past. He asks her what the man looked like. She describes him as “plain” and “ordinary.” Park reflects mournfully over a case that’s somehow worse than inconclusive. Words like “plain” and “ordinary” make such horrors sound like the stuff of everyday life.
Next: The Empty Man