Memories of Murder (2003)

Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 9.59.48 AM

Memories of Murder is a thriller about the search for a small-town serial killer in 1986.  It’s a genre movie, I suppose, but what makes it so good are all the things that might be half-assed in other versions of this movie.  It balances unexpected humor and pathos, and it stars as its leading investigator a man more suited to a Farrelly brothers comedy.

He is Park Doo-man, and he considers himself adept at picking a criminal out of the crowd.  We don’t see this demonstrated in the field early on, rather he will quietly boast of it to another detective while at work on the more frustrating, unglamorous parts of their job.  The other detective points to two men, one arrested for the rape of a woman and the other the woman’s brother who fought him off of her.  He asks him which one is which, and with neither giving away any clue Park Doo-man is exposed to the audience as a bit of a fraud.

It’s something he will eventually come to terms with in his quest to find the man who has raped and murdered several women and disposed of their bodies in identical fashion in a field.  His goal at first isn’t so much to find the killer but to prove himself worthy, as if he’s always one step away from being demoted.

By the time he and his team gets their first true break in the investigation he will have already arrested two men, both who confess to the crime after hours of being tortured.  It’s an incredibly dark couple of scenes that are played more for humor, of all things.  The man who does much of the torturing is almost vengefully gleeful in a childlike way.  When he attacks the men they’ve arrested he runs at them and jump kicks them in the chest.  It’s acrobatic and oddly hilarious, if only because of how unexpected it is.

It’s also that Park Doo-man and his partner aren’t your typical couple of torturous interrogators.  They don’t seem self-serious because they’re so sure that they’re right, even while their suspect hangs upside down in a dingy basement.  They have no self-awareness, no sense that they might be crossing the line, even as it’s incredibly obvious to the audience.  For both of the false arrests they will be chastised by their police chief who belittles them alternately like a tired father chewing out his kids for spilling milk on the carpet.

The point is immensely clear that none of these investigators have the right tools for this kind of crime.  And though it’s often a point of comedy, it highlights a deeper point, I suppose, that in this town they are simply unprepared for a crime this heinous because they’ve never seen it before.  It just doesn’t make sense, even if it does to the movie audience because these are the crimes that movies are made about.  To us it’s par for the course, but the murders are so disturbing and calculated that it makes plenty of sense that these characters would be so woefully unprepared for them.

There will be another detective, Seo Tae-yoon, sent in from Seoul to assist on the investigation.  He is the type of detective we’ve grown familiar with in movies like this, the calm and collected, even younger and handsome, leading man from a CSI show.  He is more like jaded heroes of a film noir, but even he will have holes exposed in him as the investigation pushes onward.

His involvement with the investigation becomes personal once one of the victims is someone he knows.  It’s a bit formulaic and predictable within the context of another murder mystery, but it is still earned and maybe even surprising because it never feels like this movie is going that direction until it does.

Between these two investigators, it seems to me, this movie highlights the divide between movie murders and real life murders.  Here are two detectives who seem to have walked straight out of entirely different stories, one a buffoon and the other almost vapidly confident.  One is a character actor and another a leading man.  They are both fallible in their own way, and put together they do form a nice little team, at least for a short amount of time.

Still, it seems the heart of the film lies in the differences between their two characters, a difference that brings our attention to what these crimes would be like within reality, not just in the safety of a movie screen.

The crimes are in fact pulled from the headlines, a series of unsolved murders in the eighties.  The film will end in 2003, with Park Doo-man, no longer a detective (by choice), returning to the field where the first body was discovered.  He’ll cross paths with a young girl who says a man came by not long ago looking in the same spot. Park Doo-man thinks it must be the killer, returning to the scene, and he slowly turns to look into the camera as we fade to black.  Director Bong Joon-ho has said that he believes the killer, still out there, would eventually see this movie, and this final shot finally allows Park Doo-man to come face to face with the man he’s been after.

Up Next: Dark Phoenix (2019), Aniara (2018), The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

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