Sunday, 25 May 2014

Memories of Murder (2003, SOUTH KOREA) -살인의 추억 (Sarinui chueok)


"Documents never lie"

Bong Joon-ho ('Mother' and 'The Host') helms a brilliant offbeat variation on the old detective/serial killer story with a Korean twist, based on the real-life first recognised serial killer in S. Korea. The Directing style is very kinetic but tasteful, the acting mostly quite natural and the plot engrossing. Thoroughly recommended.

You get the sense that the stakes are very high for the Detectives involved and consequently it’s very easy to get very involved in the film. The film also speaks to other themes, including politics, women’s role in society, and a land that time forgot. It’s equal parts thrilling, funny and moving and has a good soundtrack.

Genre: Thriller/Melodrama/Comedy | Director: Bong Joon-ho | Writers: Bong Joon-ho & Shim Sung-bo Actors: Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung et al. | Cinematographer: Kim Hyung-ku | Studio: CJ Entertainment & Sidus Pictures Producers: Cha Seoung-Jae.

One sentence description: Odd-couple detectives chasing a serial killer in a small town in South Korea.
One (long) sentence review: A slightly uneven and melodramatic but nonetheless brilliant story about detectives, certainty, society and the march of time, with great oddball comedy moments. 
Watch it if…You like dramas and particularly serial killer films that show you who the characters really are.
Don’t watch it if…You don’t speak Korean AND don’t like subtitles (there is LITERALLY no other reason). 
Best thing about the film…the odd-couple relationship between Park Doo-man and Seo Tae-yoon.


Bong Joon-ho’s ‘memories of Murder’ was a film that had long been on my must-watch list and when I finally did get round to it, I was pretty much blown away. Although the editing is a bit uneven (I suspect viewers outside South Korea lost a few precious scenes) and the tone of the film sometimes too melodramatic, this is still a tremendously entertaining and moving film. Imagine if you will, a typical American serial killer film where we focus on the police trying to catch the killer, with all the tropes that brings: obsessive officers, a cool, calculating killer and women in peril. Well, this film has all that, and hell, officers even say “the killer always returns to the scene of the crime” a few times. But the direction and story has so much originality, twists and oddball moments that we fall slightly in love with it. I did, anyway.

The story is based on a real event – the first recognised serial killer in South Korea, in the 1980s. It takes place in a smallish farming town (in reality Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, which is not so small). We don’t spend a lot of time with victims’ families but more so with the Police. In reality, the killer has not been found and if still alive, is in his 40s now. The last frame of the film is interpreted by many people as speaking directly to the killer, who must surely have gone to see the film in the cinema. According to Dong-a Ilbo (, almost 2 million Police Officers were involved in the inquiry and a list of almost 21,000 suspects was compiled, yielding no result.

The story centres around 3 Detectives, a city Police from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung), a rural cop (Song Kang-ho) and his sidekick (Kim Roi-ha) who all end  up chasing a serial killer who rapes and murders women, tying them up with their own clothes. One of the things that make this stand out is that the local officers happen to be quite superstitious, a bit violent and completely unreconstructed. However, this isn’t portrayed in a gritty, serious manner until we see members of the public start to make references to Police torture. Much of the interaction between these three seems to be the two locals versus the city cop, who is much more methodical, serious and professional.

The actual chase of the serial killer is frantic and thrilling, with various red herrings, friction between officers and a ruthlessly efficient killer. There is an intriguing subplot of a young man with developmental difficulties who may have been tortured as a child and within the timeline of this film may have seen a significant event but didn’t adequately comprehend it.

One of the best scenes of the film comes from takes place in a sauna, when the local officer tries out one of his theories. His theory is that the reason forensics haven’t found any hair or DNA evidence is because the perpetrator is completely shaven “down there”, so we’re treated to a hilarious scene of him checking out all the patrons’ “special area” in the sauna.

 A continuing theme is how unreconstructed the local officers are, as they frantically try to frame one suspect after another, usually attempting to extract a confession by violence. There is a comic element to this but it reflects the lack of public trust in South Korea in the 1980s.

The film inverts many of the themes of the film on their head. For example, the local officer makes a short speech (in a brothel/bar, no less) about how the city cop is too serious and analytical and should do some more running instead. His ‘reasoning’ being that agencies like the FBI do all that analysis and thinking because they’ve got a big country, while Korea is small and cops can run all over it finding bad people. The city cop is insistent that forensics and analysis will yield the answer. By the end, the local cop is waiting on tenterhooks for the DNA analysis and the city cop is forced, by failure after failure, to run and take the law into his own hands. 

Another theme is women and their role in society: although women are the targets for this killer, nobody thinks to actually consult one. Ultimately, it’s one of the female officers (I’m not sure of her exact rank) who is basically asked to make tea for on a regular basis who discovers that a particular song plays every night there is a murder, which is their first real breakthrough. The men’s faces as she schools them on this is particularly priceless.

 One of this film's strengths is that Bong allows the camera to linger rather than cutting at a fast pace, the way many film-makers in this genre do. A lot of wide-angle shots of farmland show us precisely the same wide open spaces that Song Kang-ho’s character refers to, space for a killer to stalk his victims and later hide in. There are a few things in this film that don’t ring true: the Seoul officer’s reasons for coming to the town are apparently more relevant than we get to see. Furthermore, the Karate-kicking Roi-ha Kim comes off as somewhat cartoonish and the brutal scene where he gets stuck with a rusty nail seems a bit incongruous when combined with the rest of the film.

There is a certain level of sentimentality and melodrama that courses through the film, which detracts from the grittier elements, such as the effect of the killings on society and the victims' families. Furthermore, much of the filming is off-kilter, particularly the karate-kicking sidekick (Kim Roi-ha) and there are clearly aspects of the plot that have been cut out for the final version. (for example, what is the Seoul officer's story? I'm sure he had a backstory which we missed). Also, in reality the case attracted far more Police resources, as you'd expect with 10 murders in a country of 35m people. However, keeping the castlist small was understandable because otherwise it would've been difficult to connect with the individual storylines. 

Save for a few flaws, this is a damn near perfect thriller - a very powerful film that connects with its protagonists in a way that very few films do, with a striking score, great visuals and a thrilling plot at the centre of the story.

Interestingly, Korea has a statute of limitations on murder, and the deadline for these murders passed in 2006, so the chances of the killer being found in real life are extremely low. Unfortunately, he got what he must’ve wanted, which is to be immortalised in cinema.

One of the key final scenes involves DNA analysis from the US that does not definitively nail the suspect. And so the Detective who is normally so certain that "documents never lie" pulls out his gun in order to take care of the problem himself. But he can't, because it wouldn't give him closure. We never get closure, in the same way that Korean society never got an answer to the Hwaseong killings.


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