Bong Joon-ho’s masterful Memories of Murder is a great work of humanism, one which easily transcends its genre-trappings. Utilizing the 1980s Hwaseong serial murders as its launching pad, the film formulates a searing indictment of South Korean society from that era. It also parses the psychic scars left on those who were caught up in the crimes. This allows the story’s events to have a resonance outside of their historical location, and function as a powerful document of not just the past but also the present.
Memories of Murder begins beautifully, opening on a young boy who is crouched down and intently examining an insect. He eventually rises up to reveal endless golden paddy fields, which surround the film’s provincial setting of Hwaseong. We then meet Detective Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song), a swaggering dick, traveling across the fields via a small tractor. Kids are seen chasing after him and clamoring for his attention, which he soon kindly waves off.
The bucolic opening scene serves as a prelude to a loss of innocence. The laid-back charm of the setting is soon punctuated by the discovery of a body tucked inside of a small covered ditch on the side of the field. More bodies soon follow, and the authorities slowly begin to realize that they are dealing with the nation’s first official serial killer, a fact that will come to define not only their individual lives but encapsulate their very age.
Memories of Murder shares many similarities with two towering works of fiction: Alan Moore’s 1989-1996 graphic novel series From Hell and Nic Pizzolatto’s television series True Detective. The synergy between the different works includes a thematic focus on murder, a highly specific historical period and a setting that is very much its own character. Additionally, the three works orbit around ill-matched investigators, whose pointed and often explosive interactions hinder as much as help their pursuit of a killer.
In this case the two investigators are the aforementioned Park Doo-man and Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). Seo Tae-yoon is dispatched from Seoul to assist the local police in their investigation. Right from the beginning these two men are diametrically opposed to each other in regards to professional decorum and personal sensibilities. Doo-man is a figure who reeks of machismo. He is all too quick to become violent and aggressive at the expense of his police work. Conversely, Tae-yoon is quite and thoughtful but is gradually worn down by the case. Both actors are brilliant in their respective roles, especially Kang-ho Song, who would go on to collaborate with Joon-ho on his subsequent films The Host and Snowpiercer.
Memories of Murder is a film that succeeds not only in character development. The film also acts as a sociological tool, unearthing various layers of Korean society. What becomes abundantly clear is that 1980s Korean society was inherently dysfunctional, corrupted not only by major institutional failures (such as unabashed police brutality), but by toxic and fluctuating gender relations – which is one of the film’s major thematic focuses.
Bong Joon-ho brilliantly evokes such dynamics by zeroing in on South Korea’s changing geographical landscape. In one electrifying action scene, Doo-man, Tae-yoon and their colleague Detective Cho yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) chase a suspect through the rather primitive-looking dwellings of Hwaseong, eventually reaching a massive building project that looks like it’s transforming an entire mountainside. In fact, the entire film harnesses the notion of “geography is destiny” perfectly, showcasing how the physical isolation and political instability of the setting enabled the serial killer to do his work with relative impunity.
These various factors depict a country grappling with seismic changes, which are manifested in both the spatial and psychic dimensions of the characters’ lives. While ultimately critical, Joon-ho stance on this story’s players seems to be sympathetic; it’s a portrait of deeply flawed people struggling (perhaps in vain) against the press of their historical circumstances.
If this wasn’t enough of an accomplishment, Memories of Murder also works as a genre exercise, specifically as a psychological thriller. Many scenes are imbued with an impressive amount of tension and help build out a world where, like the stories of Poe or Lovecraft, the serial killer himself occasionally feels inconsequential. Instead, there is simply a simmering feeling of dread, an unshakable impression that the world these characters are inhabiting is fundamentally wrong. Like all great movies, the film is dominated by a clear directorial vision, where nearly every element supports this tone and theme. From the decrepit interiors of police headquarters, to the thundering use of music in select scenes, Joon-ho evokes a staggering bleakness, where even the appearance of something banal like rain indicates impending doom.
As in real life, the killer at the heart of the film’s plot is never captured. This provokes comparisons to David Fincher’s Zodiac, another film that profiled an uncaught killer and the era in which he operated. Yet, unlike that later film, with its cold, clinical analysis of its period’s institutions (primarily news media and law enforcement), Memories of Murder is able to more effectively intertwine the individual with the societal, the emotional with the analytical. This leads to a more devastating conclusion than Fincher’s movie, where the viewer is drawn into the characters’ fates and where society’s enabling power appears more brutal and obvious.
Additionally, Fincher was constrained by the narrative arc of Robert Greysmith’s text (on which it was based), where the ramifications of the Zodiac’s violence seemed subsidiary to the author’s conclusions about the killer’s identity. Memories of Murder on the other hand feels unrestrained, preoccupied instead with parsing the dark hole the murders left in Korean history and time’s inability to heal those wounds. Although set in the 80s, Memories of Murder is a story that still goes on. It’s a film about then, but also about now.