Memories of Murder is what I consider to be the greatest and most well executed police procedural of all time. South Korea makes some seriously kickass crime films and this is one of my favorites. Three detectives, living in 1986 South Korea with three different and conflicting investigative styles, all search for a serial killer who has been raping, binding and killing young girls in the province of Gyunggi. The film was made in 2003 and directed by Joon-Ho Bong.
This film is an account of the first known serial killer in Korea, and the evidence and suspects that the detectives in the film investigate, matches the information from the real case. The film stays true to the police procedural formula in which the detectives are followed the entire time and all the knowledge regarding the serial killer is gained from them. It is perfectly fitting that this style is used, because the film really is about the viewer trying to solve the case along with the detectives, especially since (spoiler) the case still hasn’t been solved.
This film is very similar to four crime novels by James Ellroy known as the L.A Quartet. Each of these novels follows three cop protagonists with three different investigative styles. Each book involves these detectives trying to solve a crime committed in 1940s-1950s L.A. The first book in the series is also based off an actual murder case, just like Memories of Murder. Both the latter and the L.A Quartet have the same character archetypes for the three detectives: one detective is by the book, and firmly believes in the legal system; the other detective is corrupt and manipulates the law to his advantage to get what he’s after; the final detective is very violent, and sees brutality and enforcing the law as one and the same. Both of the books and Memories of Murder follow the murder cases completely from the detective’s point of view.
All the reminders of this film taking place in 1986 South Korea are in the background and are used to give the viewer an idea of the law enforcement and mentality of Korea at that point in time. South Korea had just come out of some type of dictatorship/military state situation. There are random air raid/city protection tests that pop up randomly in the film, giving us a glimpse of what the people of Korea dealt with back then. It also shows what the police were like at this time. They had just come out of being military police so it makes sense that brutality and a more swift indirect justice is served out to anyone believed to be guilty. All around the film doesn’t shove the time period in the viewer’s face to distract him/her from the story, and instead utilizes it for subtle exposition and atmosphere.
Most cop dramas, especially murder mysteries have the cops three steps ahead of the audience. Just when we figure something out for ourselves, the police have already given us that information along with new information to think on. The cops in this film are not use to real detective work. The audience and the detectives are thinking at the same rate on the case being solved, which makes it so much easier for someone to become invested and entranced by the film. The viewer is trying to solve this case with the cops. Both the audience and the characters have the same amount of evidence to work off of. It makes the viewer feel more in the moment with the film and keeps him/her wondering what new information can be brought to light and what has been overlooked.
The film may sound very depressing and intense, but it knows how to mix in the right amount of comedy without making it feel out of place. The three detectives in the film are very funny at times. They have to come up with lots of different ideas on how to catch this killer and some of them are pretty ridiculous. The characters become much more relatable and feel less like super genius investigators unlike many other shows and movies. We can laugh with these characters and laugh at them when they do something which seemed like a good idea when conceived, but in hindsight was really stupid.
All three detectives are insanely likeable. The corrupt cop (played wonderfully by Song Kang-Ho) always means well even in his brashest of actions. He has a sense of right and wrong –– he just lets that control him instead of the police procedures set out for him to follow. We watch him grow as a cop throughout the film. Song Kang-Ho is definitely the main character and the most fun to watch. His sidekick is the violent cop who specializes in torturing confessions out of suspects. He is the funniest character in the entire film. He has a special covering for his shoes just so he can drop kick suspects. He is very much Song Kang-Ho’s right hand man, and always remains calm until he needs to bring out the violence. The actor gives such a great kind of deadpan performance that adds so much humor to this character without overshadowing the seriousness of his job. The by the book detective is the serious one, and the most tragic of the characters. He cares so much about solving this case and doing it by the book. It makes things worse, because he continually has to make more and more sacrifices in order to capture the prime suspect. By the end of the film he becomes just as violent and unstable as the other two detectives.
I have nothing but praise for this film. There is so much more I could say about it, and I am barely scratching the surface with this review. Watch this movie. More people need to see it. I want to talk with more people about it.
Favorite Scene: It’s not my favorite scene but it’s the funniest scene. The detectives are talking about how they can find no usable DNA samples at any of the crime scenes. They also notice that the killer never leaves any hair samples by where they find the victims. Song Kang-Ho comes to the conclusion that the perp must be completely hairless, so he decides to stake out a men’s bathhouse for an entire day, until he finds a hairless man. He follows through with his plan. After a couple of hours sitting around a bunch of naked dudes, he realizes this was a really dumb idea.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from Memories of Murder