in Criterion Month

Memories of Murder (2003)

It’s funny that the last post I wrote was about an Asian film that was later remade by a legendary American director, because it really feels like I’m doing it again here. David Fincher’s 2007 true crime thriller Zodiac may not be a direct remake of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but in terms of style and substance it’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other. Both are based on yearslong investigations into serial killings, both depict detectives who are complicated, flawed people, both resolves in a deliberately unsatisfying way. But you’ve got to hand it to Bong, Memories of Murder has way more scenes of people getting dropkicked.

In October 1986, detective Park Doo-man (the legendary Song Kang-ho) is brought in to investigate a dead body found in a field on the outskirts of a small town. Park is frustrated and overwhelmed with trying to run this crime scene, struggling mightily to correctly gather evidence and control the crowd. Soon enough another body is found, and it appears Park has a serial case on his hands: someone is raping and murdering women. Park’s investigative methods are even more lackluster, and, with no forensic technology available to him, we find out that Park and his partner Cho (Kim Roi-ha) rely on intuition and torture to nail suspects.

Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a detective from Seoul with more modern training, arrives to assist in the case. Park and Cho have identified their first suspect, a scarred, mentally handicapped man, Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik), who used to follow one of the victims around. They are able to beat a confession out of him, but Seo deduces Baek was physically incapable of having perpetuated the crimes. So the trio decide to try to catch the murderer in the act. Using one of their own, Inspector Kwon (Go Seo-hee), as bait, they begin staking out the likely spots the next attack will happen. With mounting pressure from the police force and press and now their own people being placed in harm’s way, will Park and Seo be able to solve this case?

Memories of Murder isn’t interested in giving us easy answers. Park and Seo have clashing methods, but Seo isn’t rewarded for being more diligent and by-the-book. It’s quite the opposite, Seo ends up being tempted to believe in Park’s intuition and adopt his cruel methods. And you can’t even totally write-off Park for being a brute, the movie invites the audience to sympathize with his frustrations. After all, he may be despicable, but he’s the only one who’s got a shot at finding this murderer. There’s no easy answer here.

Despite this being only his second feature, Bong Joon-ho was already such a compelling filmmaker. Memories of Murder fits, and perhaps established, Bong’s penchant for mixing black humor with grotesque images and haunting moments. And Song Kang-ho is a such a star, it’s no wonder directors like Bong and Park Chan-wook continue to use him as their leading man of choice. We even get to see him in our site’s favorite thing: old man makeup! How come they haven’t made this guy an Avenger yet?