Memories of Murder

It only feels right to close off the unofficial Korean film week at Modest Movie with another Korean masterpiece from the director of Mother. This time it’s the movie that put Joon-ho Bong on the map – Memories of Murder from 2003.

Being a detective is a thankless job. They spend hours pouring over documents, examining the results of an autopsy, and sleepless nights staking out a suspect’s home. But no matter the outcome of their investigation, the tally of victims they couldn’t save always outweighs the number of monsters they catch. It’s work that slowly chips away at a man’s psyche – bringing regret, guilt, and impotent rage. The only thing that drives them to continue working as a detective is the hope, or the belief, that what they’re doing makes a difference at the end of the day.

Memories of Murder portrays two different types of detectives: the brutish rural partners Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-ho) and Cho Yong-Koo (Kim Roe-ha); and the methodical, patient big-city detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). Investigating a series of brutal murders in the province of Gyunggi where beautiful young women have been found bound and strangled in the countryside on the outskirts of town, the detectives run into the logistical problem of solving a case in 1986: the lack of adequate forensic technology. The only evidence they have to go on is footprints, a caller’s request that a radio station play a specific song on every night there is a murder, and the weather. The murders only happen on rainy nights.

Doo-Man and Yong-Koo are anxious to capture the murderer and are not above using torture and coercion to get innocent suspects to confess to the crimes. It’s a mix of laziness and frustration that induces the pair to act like this. They want the case to be closed quickly and they don’t have time to stomach the perceived half-truths and lies that interrogation brings out of potential suspects. Doo-Man claims that he can just look a person in the eye and tell if they’re guilty or not. It’s this belief that leeches into his brutish methods of persuasion; if he knows a suspect is the culprit, why waste time on the ineffective and plodding process of proving that guilt? Just get a confession, whatever the cost.

Tae-Yoon views the rural partners as ineffective buffoons, and his elitism and aloof demeanor hampers their working relationship. It also doesn’t help that the police chief disregards Doo-Man’s and Yong-Koo’s insights into the case, preferring to listen to the thoughts of the out-of-town detective. Just because Tae-Yoon is smarter and a better police officer than the other two doesn’t make him any more effective. Though he takes the proper precautions to make sure a crime scene isn’t contaminated, the only usable evidence they find is a barely usable muddy footprint that has mostly been washed away by the rain. “We take all the precautions – and we still don’t find anything,” Doo-Man grumbles. This is the frustration of police work.

Tae-Yoon is the one who becomes perturbed and upset by the setbacks in the case, more than the other two detectives. In Doo-Man and Yong-Koo’s case, setbacks are an inevitable part of their sloppy police work. But for Tae-Yoon, the methodical and careful detective who relies on doing the job slowly and properly, his ineffectiveness not only frustrates him – he cannot understand it. He does everything right – relying on documents because they “never lie” and never stooping so low as to coerce a suspect into a confession. And yet he cannot get any conclusive proof to arrest anyone. He has his suspicions, and a reasonable guess as to who the killer is, but no hard evidence to connect the suspect to the crimes. He regards the setbacks of the case not as a personal failure, but as that of a flawed system.

Memories of Murder is an in-depth examination of the rigors of police work and the emotional and mental strain that comes with the job of capturing a relentless serial killer. It’s reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac with the focus on the exhausting case work, false starts, and the dogged persistence to solve a crime by criminal who may be too intelligent to get caught. It’s another Korean masterwork.



2 Responses to Memories of Murder

  1. Pingback: The Host « Modest Movie

  2. Excellent review of a great thriller, I’m writing my own review as we speak. I think my favorite scene in the whole film is the epilogue where Song comes across a child who met someone who returned to the crime scene a while back. She describes him as simply “normal,” and that’s a perfect summary of the whole movie in my book. Great film 😀

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