It's safe to say that, at least in the mid-1980s, South Korea did not have much of a "serial killer" problem -- which goes a long way towards explaining the not-so-funny comedy of errors that struck the local police when one such murderer quietly entered their midst.
Such is the story of Joon-ho Bong's Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok), which takes an impressively objective look at the overwhelmingly inexperienced South Korea law enforcement officials who were never able to crack this case.
A young woman is found dead in a ditch, and it's not long before rural police officers Park and Jo are stymied. From Seoul comes the hard-boiled detective Seo, who quietly manages to overlook his colleagues' relative cluelessness; it's not the fault of officers Park and Jo that they've no idea where to look -- and possess even less in the resources department. But a few canny calls lead to a few tenuous leads:
Our killer likes to stalk at night, in the rain, and always to one particular song. The local cops tend to grab hold of one obscure (and often ridiculous) clue, while Detective Seo tends to be a little more methodical with his approach. Alas, nothing works.
What's most interesting about Memories of Murder is that it works as a casual indictment of the slipshod police-work while also sucking you in as a well-oiled crime procedural. It's not just that these well-intentioned policemen were way out of their element; but what they do know, they seem to have learned from American movies and TV shows.
In today's modern era of hyper-forensic wizardry and criminal profiling of the most accurate sort, one may find the casual confusion of these policemen a bit old-fashioned and sadly lacking ... which I suppose is part of Bong's point; it's not just that a terribly slippery killer struck and killed several innocent victims; it's that the murders were able to continue due to the investigators' inadequate training, lack of resources, and general over-reliance on the obvious answers.
Memories of Murder moves slowly and methodically, but it's a pretty fascinating story all the way through. It might not have the flash of American thrillers like Silence of the Lambs or Seven, but it's a true-crime story brought to cinematic life with insight, irony, and intensity.
Video: The Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic transfer is nothing short of fantastic. Close-ups, darker scenes, you name it; the movie looks great.
Audio: There are two English audio tracks (Dolby Digital 5.1 & DD 2.0), but I recommend skipping right by both of those and clicking on the Korean (2.0) track. Why? Because the English audio tracks offer a dubbed version that borders on atrocious. The dub-actors speak with next to no emotion whatsoever, but regardless of that: A movie should be viewed in its original language. That's what subtitles were invented for. (And yes, optional English subtitles are, of course, included.)
Extras: There's a collection of eight deleted scenes, a 36-minute Interviews / Behind the Scenes featurette that brings us the (subtitled) thoughts and anecdotes from several cast & crew members, the original Korean theatrical teaser and trailer, and a handful of trailers for other Palm Pictures releases: Breaking News, Cronicas, The Work of Director Mark Romanek, The Work of Director Stephane Sednaoui, The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer, and The Work of Director Anton Corbijn.
Low-key, unassuming, and crafty in the way it slowly gets under your skin, Memories of Murder is a sly and smart thriller. It works as a straight crime story because it's a well-crafted piece of storytelling, but it's even better than that -- because it tells the whole ugly truth about a series of murders that you've probably never even heard about before.