Memories of Murder offers a few lessons about the creation of a cinematic narrative — every aspect of the story here is connected, to the point where character arcs are the direct thematic focus, and the fictionalized storyline pulls and amplifies critical talking points from the real life tale, for example the moral dilemma of ends justify the means that we in the US can link to the post 9/11 relationship between counterterrorism and civil liberties.
In that regard, Memories of Murder explores not just the baffling police procedure effected by South Korea’s first serial killer in 1986, but the country’s history with authoritarian government, believe it or not. There’s a scene where Detective Seo, played by Kim Sang-kyung, is really showing that he’s a capable, big city detective, all the way from Seoul, and outside there’s this civil drill going on in the middle of the night, with air raid sirens and everything. Later on there’s rioting and police brutality. And police brutality for the purposes of this narrative is a stand-in for that greater idea of the breakdown of civil liberties when there is, well, pieces of fruit found in a victim’s particular area. That might make a police officer go a little off the rails.
There’s a lot going on in the movie, between how a province might defend itself against a serial killer, the evolving police tactics worldwide, the relationship between the US and Korea, and the issue of suspects. I’d say the primary focus, if not an important one, is the torture of suspects, including one who is mentally challenged. They really, really want someone to confess, and it’s bizarre, the lengths they’ll go, and the expressions of their frustration. A lot of… kicking.
But the director is not asking here to just sit back and examine the detectives, who in another movie might be seen as just monsters or just heroes, there is a dialogue created between the two, between Detective Seo and our hero, Detective Park, played by Kang-ho Song. And yet there isn’t always this direct clash in dialogue, it plays out with dual character arcs, these two guys undergo changes that play upon the theme, forming ideologies that oppose both each other and those they had when they started. It’s a really clever way to go about things, and it opens the door to a lot of further exploration, and it’s just one of the things that really makes Memories of Murder one of the most important and one of the best films from the Korean New Wave.
I think we can say that The Host is kind of the perfect distillation of Bong Joon-ho’s style, the zaniness of Barking Dogs Never Bite, the visual opulence of Memories of Murder, and the surreal literary cinema of Mother, but maybe The Host is just more apparently that. I’d say that Memories of Murder is just a more subtle example, but we could also say it’s is like what JSA or Mr. Vengeance is for Chan Wook Park, or even better, The Matrix, for the Wachowskis, that kind of line in the sand before the style really took hold, almost to the point of reprioritization. The Matrix is much more like Bound than it is the Matrix sequels and Cloud Atlas.
Memories of Murder is more restrained, and while it does blend genres in that signature directorial style, namely comedy and horror in a drama film, it appropriately reflects the feel of the story. And that mix of tones creates an elasticity that reflects the gamut of emotions that would be appropriate to a story like this. It’s a human tale insofar as it examines the relationship between the individual and the institution, like other fine works of crime fiction (The Wire, though for a more modern analogue, if you liked True Detective, rent this immediately). These characters are running around with so much motivating them, the invisible paradigms in society that are conflicting and making them act without thinking because that’s just how it’s done on TV, for example.
The ending is pretty notorious I think and that’s mostly because it accurately reflects just how these real events went down. It leaves you on a chilling note, and more than that it leaves you really thinking.