Memories Of Murder opens with the discovery of a corpse in a remote field. It is found curled-up, bloodied, and underneath a concrete slab. Ants and insects crawl over the face and body. Unknowingly, children are playing roundabout.
The opening scene sets the dark tone for much of what is to follow. But not the tone for everything that is to follow. In amongst the resulting police investigation around which the film is set, there is an unexpected stream of slapstick comedy. Our central cops try to act like they come from American TV, but all too often end up being those of the Keystone variety.
Set in the late 1980s and based on a real life case, Memories Of Murder follows the disordered investigation to try and solve this murder. Beset by police corruption and incompetence, and officers jumping to conclusions and chasing down false leads, the investigation becomes a shambles. Much of this makes the film very reminiscent of David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ (2007). The fact that it is based on a famous, real-life, unsolved case, furthers this idea.
Song Kang-ho in the lead role as Park is excellent. His performance embodies the well-walked tightrope the film makes between slapstick comedy and violent crime drama. A poor central performance – or even just a reasonable performance – and the film would probably have faltered and failed. But instead, much of the success of the film must be credited to him.
He and his partner Cho (Kim Roi-ha) do not take their jobs seriously to begin with. Being based in a rural area, the idea of a series of murders is novel and exciting, rather than something serious and dangerous. Their farcical methods resemble attempts to copy American cop shows, more than responsible policing techniques. They are tough-talking; there are leather jackets abound; they play good cop/bad cop, but for no reason and to no success; there are flailing attempts to beat up (innocent) individuals; and they throw a ridiculous number of unnecessary kung-fu kicks. And all the while, they seem more interested in positive publicity than solving the crime correctly.
Visually, the set design of the police offices that we see depicted are dank, grey, grimy interiors. They are certainly not the glamorous ones as portrayed in the American cop shows that our officers believe themselves to be in.
On a small personal aside, when watching the film, I was unaware it was based on a true story. Unusually I wish I had not found out. Usually the confirmation that a story is true can increase the believability of, and emotional reaction to, a film. But here it leads to anger and frustration at having seen the incompetence of the officers involved – not allowing time for forensics to turn up to crime scenes, or spending time investigating individuals with no pubic hair, for instance. Perhaps this case could have been solved if responsible actions had been taken. What had previously been black comedy now leaves a hollow, pained feeling.
This is not necessarily a criticism though. The film is still evoking great emotion, which is exactly what cinema should do. Having a hollow, pained feeling at the murder of numerous innocent individuals is the correct reaction. The emotional reaction to the film is far less enjoyable, and the film has become far tougher. Somebody watching the film knowing that it is based on a true story may have an entirely different reaction to the film.
Memories Of Murder established Bong Joon-ho’s name as a great talent to watch. It also helped (re-)establish South Korea’s name as a cinematic force in the 21st century. 2003 also saw the release of Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’ (2003), and the unsettling, and at times extreme, darkness that these films (and others) shared, helped define the country’s cinema, and place it on the world stage.