Loosely based on a series of murders that began in 1986, Memories of Murder (2003) is an excellent tale of Korean detectives trying to break the case of a serial killer while fighting their own bad impulses in a system under a military dictatorship that doesn't much care for justice or fairness as long as it sees results.
It begins when a girls body is found in a drainage ditch located in an expanse of fertile farmland. Soon, another body is found, same as the last, a young girl, bound, strangled, with her undergarments over her head. The crime scene is sloppy, too many reporters, too many cops, and a tractor runs over some footprints that could have been the killer's. Inspector Park (Song Kang-ho) and his partner begin compiling a book with possible suspects, finally deciding to pin it on a retarded boy who was known to follow the last victim around. They begin their standard forced interrogation, keeping the kid in the basement, leading him into a coerced confession by giving him a smack or two when he answers wrong.
Inspector Suh (Kim Sang-hyung), a detective from Seoul, volunteers to help with the case, and he instantly shuns Parks investigative method. While Park and his partner are busy falsifying evidence and appeasing the local reporters and their chief, Suh insists that the simple minded kids underdeveloped hands couldn't possibly strangle anyone, much less hold a pair of chopsticks. To the departments discgrace, Suh is right. So, as suspects come and go, the two detectives find themselves forced to merge with the others style. Suh's eyes offer a new perspective and details. Park knows the land and its people. But, it seems they only get the thinnest clues and possible coincidences to follow. Pinning their hopes on leads that dissipate, the two men struggle to find a killer before he can strike again.
One of the things I've learned from reading the good true crime books/case studies is that the way serial killers are portrayed in most movies and fiction novels is about as outlandish as a Batman villain. When you read anything by actual criminal psychologists and investigators, you quickly realize Thomas Harris' (and 99% of the crime fiction/film community) serial killer musings are about as transparent and hokey as a Friday the 13th film. It is also the reason why, if you want to get down to the nitty gritty, Citizen X is a vastly better serial killer film than Seven. Not that there isn't room for the wild, outlandish, and pulp. But, due to their exaggerated portraits in books and film, serial killers have in most peoples minds been bloated into some kind of mythic evil.
Memories of Murder doesn't offer easy answers or tidy resolutions. By taking the procedural stance, it is more about the detectives character and method while the killer remains an enigma. Park and Suh make for an engaging odd couple of the rural and the urban detective. As Park says, Suh wants to think like the FBI, but the FBI has to use their brains because the US is so detailed and has so much land to cover. Illegal tactics aside, Park relies on his instincts because he is Korean and in Korea detectives use their feet. The case the film is based on remains unsolved. The film finds its poignant ending based on this and offers a glimpse at different side of the investigative world- what if, despite all of your efforts, you still came up empty, and people died as a result?
Though the films villain is a mystery and the case has a futility, the film is not completely mired in the doldrums or lacking in suspense. Surprisingly, there is good deal of levity, little asides, dollops of humor that also keep it from being a one note dirge. While it isn't uncommon for Asian films to offer a grab bag of styles, the humor here isn't bracingly forced. It feels quite natural- a kid at a crime scene mock mimicking Inspector Park, or Park mistaking Suh's good samaritan actions and (a by the way quite real- no stuntmen) dropkicking the new detective, or the passed out chief suddenly waking from a drunken stupor to separate his two arguing detectives. Director Bong Joo-hoo injects humor as a realistic reaction and the detectives way of coping with their dark jobs. It also always remains true to character, with the more at ease and world weary Inspector Park having a more casual nature, whereas the younger and more dedicated Inspector Suh takes everything serious.
The DVD: Region 3, Edko Video Ltd. (HK).
First a few words about this edition compared to others. The Korean edition (R3, CJ Entertianment) of the film is a two-disc SE (available in both collectors copy and standard versions) with a second extras disc that doesn't offer English subtitles. While the English friendly Optimum Asia (PAL, R2) version has some of these extras (deleted scenes and such) it has some severe errors in the image quality (like pixelation) and doesn't offer a DTS sound option. Therefore, this version is a good one if you want the film and don't want to shell out money for the Korean version that has an extras disc that isn't English friendly or the flawed image of the Optimum R2.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The film offers some top notch cinematography. There are some visually striking sequences, from the opening fields of golden farmland, to a rain soaked night in a green forest where they are trying to trap the killer with a decoy. The print is very clean, and I only noticed one scene with some minor dirt and wear popping up. Contrast is fairly deep, and the sharpness appears crisp and detailed. Colors are well rendered with much of the film taking a muted tone, enhancing the dingier locales. Technically, there is some slight noise reduction noticeable in a couple of scenes (some wobbly power lines) but it isn't to any extreme or distracting levels.
Sound: DTS-EX or Dolby Digital Surround, Korean language with optional English or Chinese subtitles. Good audio presentation offers clean dialogue, good ambiance, and a powerful presentation of the score. There are a couple of tense scenes where the audio falls into near silence, with only subtle fx, only to erupt with the score as the tension mounts. Good example of mixing/editing, since it really kept me on the edge of my seat. Thankfully, the subtitle translation appears quite good with no glaring "Engrish" errors.
Extras: Theatrical trailer and tv spots— Photo gallery— Cast Filmographies (sorry folks, only on Chinese)— Behind the Scenes (11:12). Exactly as it says, just behind the scenes b-camera footage showing the actors running through various scenes, sometimes dramatically intense, sometimes goofing off. No subs but easy to follow.
Conclusion: While it doesn't offer a wise-cracking serial killer who creates elaborate booby traps or kills people based on the seven deadly sins, Memories of Murder offers something a bit deeper, and admittedly dramatically methodical, than your standard thriller fare. Great performances. Interesting characters. Solid direction. The DVD presentation is a tad light on extras, though it is a winner in the audio and visual department, making it a worthwhile purchase for importers.