It is 1986, in the backwater Gyunggi Province of South Korea, and a woman has been found murdered in a drainage ditch on the edge of a field. A detective (played by the fantastic Song Kang-Ho) peers into the ditch, staring at the corpse, as though he is trying to see, in the evidence, what had happened here. This, we learn later, is his thing. He believes that just by looking into someone’s eyes, he can see guilt or innocence. He has complete faith in this ability of his, which is one of the reasons why the investigation is a blunderbuss of the highest order from the get-go. Who was this woman? Who killed her? A couple of days later, another woman shows up dead, also in a field, and there are similarities between the two murders: how her hands were tied behind her back, how her panties were put over her head. Both women were raped. It appears that they may be looking at a serial killer.
Based on a true story, Memories of Murder examines the chase for what is believed to be South Korea’s first serial killer. Because South Koreans would know the outcome of the story (in a similar way to Americans who would know the outcome of the Zodiac Killer case, even before going into David Fincher’s movie), director Bong Joon-Ho finds the tension in the investigation itself, the dead-ends, false starts, and the following of ridiculous leads.
Memories of Murder is one of the greatest (and, at times, funniest) police procedurals of all time.
Song Kang-Ho as Detective Park Doo-Man
Similar to Zodiac, where so much of the tension came from a modern day’s audience thinking, “Jeez, if they only had cell phones …”, Memories of Murder takes place in what already seems a long-ago time, when DNA analysis was in its infancy, and when homicide detectives sat at their desks, laboriously tapping out reports on old typewriters, and in the middle of a stakeout you are on your own, because you can’t text your partner across the field what you are seeing.
Park Doo-Man is the detective we saw in the first scene, and he’s a rough type, willing to bend the rules to get a confession, to close the case. He’s the biggest fish in that small pond. His partner Cho Yong-koo (played beautifully by Kim Rwe-ha) is a thug along the lines of Bud White in L.A. Confidential, the guy called in to rough up a recalcitrant witness (that’s putting it mildly), if the detectives are not getting the answer they want. Immediately, we can sense that these two are in over their heads. They follow local rumors, regardless of the evidence, and hone in on a mentally disabled boy, who seemed to know a lot about the murders, and actually was obsessed with one of the girls who was murdered. There is no physical evidence that he was involved, and it is debatable immediately whether this child-man could have pulled off such an intricate killing, but the detectives believe they have their man, and go after him relentlessly. Under torture, the boy confesses.
Meanwhile, a big-wig detective from Seoul is sent down to help out with the case. This is Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (played by Kim Sang-Kyung, in a magnificent performance – it is hard to pick a favorite, since everyone is good here, but he is particularly good), a city boy, who has different ideas about how to investigate a murder case. Here we are in the realm of thriller-cliche: the rivalry between detectives, the newbie coming in to show the old guard how it’s done, and all of the attendant hostility and conflict that can result (speaking of L.A. Confidential …) However, the cliche doesn’t play itself out in the expected way (ie: the big-wig city boy learning that there is some validity to the rural way of doing things), although there are some reversals as the story moves on in its brutal relentless way. Detective Seo Tae-Yoon isn’t a desk-detective, he isn’t “soft”. He may be from the city, but he’s not a “city slicker”. He knows his job, and is baffled and angered at the way he sees the detectives railroading witnesses and manufacturing evidence.
Kim Sang-Kyung, as Detective Seo Tae-Yoon
He has a keen mind. While his colleagues are throwing out ideas at random, he examines the evidence. He stares at photographs late into the night. You can see the wheels turning, turning. (Dude is hot too. Just sayin’.) He is quiet, he keeps it to himself, but in a key scene, when the detectives sit around talking, someone says, “Are there any connections between the murdered girls?” Park Doo-Man throws out, “They were both single.” And his thug sidekick adds, “And they were both beautiful.” Yeah, not really helpful there, boys, although thanks for sharing. Seo sits off to the side, deep in thought, and then says, “They were both murdered on rainy nights.” Everyone stops and looks over at him. He adds, “And both girls were wearing red dresses.”
This may not be enough to jump-start the investigation (although it is), but it’s certainly more useful than “Both those broads were hot and available!”
Bong Joon-Ho has created a masterpiece of tone and pace here. Scenes of buffoonery are mixed with gripping scenes of police work, and there are some truly terrifying sequences. There is a sense of doom in the picture, intensified by Bong’s use of landscape: dark wet fields at night, the grasses slowly waving, the massive factory where a crucial chase scene takes place, and the twining narrow streets of the small village, where the cops race and double back and careen around corners, just missing their target every time. Much has been made of Bong’s additional layer to the film, the sense of threat that was in South Korea at that time, when civil defense drills were the order of the day, in preparation for an attack from the North. Protesters crowd outside the police station, shouting slogans against torture and coercion, school girls do Red Cross drills, giggling, carting one another about in stretchers, but the casual sense of impending danger, a populace struggling to organize itself, filters down into the workings of the police department. 1986 was a crucial year for South Korea, their first democratic elections would be held the following year, after a military coup and increasing autocratic rule. In Memories of Murder, word gets out that “the President” will be driving in a convoy through the village, so the populace lines the street, throwing firecrackers into the road, a scene of chaos and potential riot. The tanks drive by, a militaristic show of might, burning fires up along the sides of the street, and in the throngs, the detectives push their way through, focused not on the larger political forces at work in their country, but on trying, desperately, to get a break in the case.
The scenes in the station house are worthy of Howard Hawks, and the opening sequence reminded me of the start of His Girl Friday, with its jangle of cacaphony and chaos, the humorous joshing of one another, and an overwhelming and jocular atmosphere of male camaraderie, with detectives clacking away at typewriters, on telephones, ordering out for food, everyone talking at once. It is an atmosphere where any theory will do, regardless of logic. The murderer leaves no hair behind on his victims. So he has no pubic hair? Maybe he is a Buddhist monk, known for shaving “down there”? This has all the earmarks of a wild goose chase, based on nothing but a random guess. They wonder if they should investigate a local Buddhist monastery.
Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up. The town is in a state of fear. Nobody goes out at night anymore.
In an eerie autopsy scene, with the detectives crowded around yet another dead body, the coroner discovers that the victim has nine pieces of a peach inserted into her vagina. They all stand there, looking at each other. The case changes in that moment. Or at least the energy between the men, who, up until this point, have been rivals.
Park says to Seo, afterwards, obviously shaken, “Have you ever seen anything like this in Seoul?”
Since he has spent the entire movie trying to prove that he is just as good as any city detective, this is a chilling moment of uncertainty, an admission of helplessness.
But Seo’s reply is even more chilling: “Never.”
The mix of investigative techniques is the crux of the picture, with the detectives battling it out, losing focus on what they are actually trying to do: catch a killer. But slowly, as the killer continues to kill, in a perfect way, leaving no trace of himself behind, the rivalry begins to dissolve. Everyone has become obsessed. It is thrilling to watch. Homicide detectives, knowing that they have been duped, that they are failing in their essential job … that story has rarely been told so effectively. In a way, the movie is one of anguish.
A female detective comes up with a crucial bit of information. On every night a murder took place, a local radio station has played a certain song, from a request on postcard, a song called “Sad Letter”. The postcard reads: “Please play this song on the next rainy night.” The female detective races to the radio station to see if she can get the postcard for handwriting analysis. Turns out, the postcard had been put in the trash, which had already been carted away. Detective Seo goes to the local landfill, and there is a great shot of him standing on a mountain of garbage, looking around him, helplessly. He is so driven that it wouldn’t surprise you at all if you saw him start to dig through the mountain for that one tiny postcard.
In thrillers, it is often easy to forget that the victims were once alive, that they have been robbed of something precious and beautiful. Memories of Murder, even with the Keystone Cops sequences, and the mostly-male cast, never loses sight of that fact, and it is one of the reasons why the film has such power. The murdered bodies are shown in unblinking clarity, but there is not that sense of titillation which is often there in thrillers, when naked dead (usually female) bodies are filmed in such a manner that they almost look sexy, capitalizing on the voyeuristic impulse in audiences. I understand why this is the case, and yet I do get tired of it. Memories of Murder captures, in no uncertain terms, the horror of this kind of death, and how the homicide detectives almost enter into the victims’ world, trying to see what happened through their eyes, an empathetic and compassionate viewpoint. It is important for cops to keep their distance, naturally. But here, the lines are blurred. The newness of it (this is not a jaded police department, used to investigating this kind of case – the horror of it takes them by surprise as well), the surgical efficiency of the murders, is in direct contrast to the sense you get that … these people were once alive, they were loved, they are not just bodies, they were people. Thrillers, in their desire to, well, “thrill”, often forget that element. This one does not.
The dread the detective-team feels on rainy days is palpable. Bong is innovative in how he portrays this collective obsession. A woman is out hanging laundry, and one drop of rain falls, another. She puts her hand out. By this point in the film, rain has become what it needs to be: a warning bell, a symbol of death, and Bong makes you feel she will be murdered at any moment, but instead, she just hurriedly starts to take her laundry off the line. The tension is unbearable. On one of these rainy nights, the disconsolate team of detectives sit in the station house, stymied, unsure of what to do next, when suddenly, on the radio they hear the DJ say, “By request, here is ‘Sad Letter'”, and they all leap up and race out into the rainy night, hoping against hope that they can avert what they know will happen.
But they fail, and it does happen. Again.
Memories of Murder is a must-see. It is a great thriller, and a compelling portrait of obsession and drive. It does not have easy answers, and it is important to remember that this is a notorious case in South Korea and all of the elements (the rainy night connection, the pieces of peach) would be well-known to that audience. I will not provide any more spoilers because part of the pleasure of this movie (and it is, indeed, a deep deep pleasure) is in watching the story unfold.
I was left devastated at the end. For me, the key was in Seo’s character, a bachelor (unlike Park, who has a nice cozy home life), his singular and tormented obsession growing, until he no longer knows where the case begins and where he ends. Never has it been so clear the helplessness homicide detectives must feel when, despite the hard work, the heart and soul put into it, despite the burning desire for capture, they cannot get their man.