Someone recently recommended the 2003 South Korean film Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok) from director Joon-ho Bong. It’s based on the true story of Korea’s first serial killer who ran amok raping and killing ten women over a five-year period from 1986-1991 in the rural province of Gyunggi. The victims are young, attractive and are bound and gagged in a very specific fashion. The detectives in this mostly farming region are ill-prepared for such a case, and after the second body surfaces, the police know they have a serial killer on their hands.
The film begins with hefty Detective Park Doo-Man ( Song Kang-ho) riding on farming equipment to the murder site as he’s harassed by (and he in turn harasses) local children. There are few worries about locking down a crime scene–although that does happen later as the body count rises. After the discovery of a second body, Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul–he’s volunteered to help catch the elusive killer, and he’s quietly appalled by the policing methods used by Detective Park Doo-Man and his combat-booted sidekick Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Rwe-ha). These local detectives aren’t above fabricating evidence or beating a confession out of a likely suspect. Forget the Miranda Rights, legal representation, line-ups and any other feature of police investigations. These aspects of crime do not exist for these S. Korean detectives–although some of the police are much more comfortable going over the line than others.
As the murders continue, the detectives desperately resort to local fables and even visit a shaman for results. While there are funny moments as the two rural detectives continue to blunder through the case, there’s also a strong sense of desperation as they know it’s just a matter of time before the killer strikes again in this small community.
The investigation is not just about the crimes and the identity of the sadistic killer (we see him stalking his victims on several occasions), but this excellent crime film is also about the permanent impact these murders leave behind on the detectives desperate to solve the case. Detective Park Doo-Man becomes a little more humble and less sure of his instincts as the case wears on, whereas Detective Seo Tae-Yoon, a man who’s always acted by the book and whose favourite phrase is: “documents don’t lie” becomes more frustrated and more willing to break the rules in order to catch the killer before he strikes again.
Adding humour to a crime/murder film is always a dodgy thing, and generally–especially in a tale of a serial killer, humour has no comfortable place unless it’s inserted very delicately into the tale. The humour in Memories of Murder is perfect and offers just enough light relief to this grim, tense tale of a sadistic killer and the men determined to catch him.
Marvellously acted, gripping and beautifully photographed, Memories of Murder leaves a chilling lasting impression, and for this viewer, the final scene captures the essence of the entire film.
Tarantino listed Memories of Murder as one of his Top Films since 1992.