I’ve always taken a liking for serial-killer crime thrillers such as Se7en or the more recent Zodiac, because the cat-and-mouse game between the killer and the cops never seem to tire out, at least for me, and especially so if they’re based on real life incidents which add a sense of realism in the stories that are told. It can be wavered off as implausible, because there were real victims who fell under the cunning of the killer.
Korean crime thrillers have so far been a mixed bag though, even if those like Voice of a Murderer were based on unsolved true incidents, because in the hands of less able directors, it’s always easy to lapse into laziness in making the film, applying quite standard narrative types involving chronology, and what happens next, or over dramatizing elements of the story just to amplify emotions of pity and anger, or worse yet, become a bland whack-fest, hyping on gruesomeness and gore as spectacle. And here’s where director Bong Joon-ho, who went on to make the superb The Host, excelled, in sailing with an even keel in the presentation of Memories of Murder, making it extremely memorable, and went beyond your standard crime thriller fare by deftly gelling together all elements in the movie, into one keenly felt film.
Memories of Murder recounts possibly South Korea’s first serial killer, who went on a spree between 1986 and 1991 with 10 women brutally raped and murdered, and sparked off an intense investigations which involved some 1.8 million cops and 3000 suspects, as the prologue would have us believe. Song Kang-ho stars as Detective Park Doo-man, a small town cop with little experience in investigations of such nature, and it’s slowly revealed too that the police of those days possess very rudimentary skills and equipment to handle crime of such nature, coupled with the complexity of having to deal with curious villagers and onlookers who contaminate each crime scene.
In comes Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul who volunteered for this assignment, and you have your big city versus small town rivalry, as the two of them can’t see eye to eye in various matters, especially when it boiled down to extracting confessions of convenience from prime suspects, in order to wrap up the case and call it a day, dished out from in your face beatings by Park’s sidekick Kim Roe-ha (Cho Yong Koo). Under a social and historical backdrop of martial law, we see how questionable methods get employed, and how sloppy investigations can get, at times relying on questionable and unorthodox methods involving torture.
It is this constant interplay of opposites that keep the viewing engaged throughout, especially with the incessant challenging of individual cop’s beliefs and investigative philosophies, which at times can dwell on black humour, such as the profiling of hairless men. All the lead cops in the movie no doubt will grow and come out of this experience changed, such as how small time cop gets forced to open his mind and widen his horizon, and how the constant frustration at being hit with red herring after red herring, of being so close but yet so bloody far, just adds on to the complexity of the case that this is not your simple criminal, but a cold and calculated serial one.
There are a couple of elements that I particularly enjoyed in the film, such as how opposites almost always bring about a clash, be it of values or methods employed, in particular how Detectives Park and Seo come to blows, one a believer of his own sixth sense ability, while the other a follower of paper and documentation. Director Bong also crafted an element of comparison between the macho cops and a rather soft prime suspect, one you would probably not have put on your radar, who just appears, and I couldn’t help but to draw comparisons with David Fincher’s famous Se7en and Zodiac, which were made before and after this one, where it is fairly clear of certain similarities between this film and Se7en with its incessant rainy setup, while Zodiac shares the same frustration with this one in the cops’ inability and impotence of not being able to crack the case in front of them, resulting in an increase in body count. Nothing beats having to know the MO, but being powerless to do something about it.
Best of all, Bong Joon-ho knows how to craft a thriller with action at the right moments, and they need no be big-bang types, but sequences which were highly effective in bringing out adrenaline. He did that for this film, and for The Host, and without a doubt I begin to feel that he understands the material at hand in order to craft them for the pleasure of an audience sitting through it. I still have one more of his earlier movies on DVD format yet to be watched, and I hope to pop that into the player once I savor this masterpiece once more. Highly recommended, and it sits in my mental list of great serial killer crime films.
The Region Free DVD by EDKO Video is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and the visual transfer is generally pristine without any noticeable pops and cackles. Audio is available in the original Korean track in either DTS-ES or Dolby Digital Surround EX. Subtitles are available in English or Chinese, and scene selection is over 12 chapters.
The Special Features in this one-disc release is quite scarce. The Theatrical Trailer (2:35) is in Korean and presented in Letterbox format, and the 3 TV Spots, each running 10 seconds, are presented in the same format, but with Cantonese voice-overs, presumably taken from the clips for the Hong Kong market. The other special features include a Photo Gallery containing 12 stills, a Cast and Crew Filmography which is text based, for actors Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-jyung and director Bong Joon-ho, and to round it off, a Behind the Scenes making of documentary (11:12) in Korean, with no subtitles, running 4x3 full frame, which contains a rather cursory look at how certain scenes were shot and their NG moments.