Story: In the year 1986 South Korea has to deal with its first serial killer case. Bumpkin police detective
Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho) takes on the case that is about two dead women, who were found in a little rural
town. Apparently the victims were raped and soon after killed in the same characteristic way. Finding a suspect proves
to be very difficult, because the police has to struggle with nearly no resources, intrusive reporters who unknowingly
destroy evidence at the crime scenes and detectives that didn't receive any form of training.
Park for his part is no friend of scientific methods, however he wants to get the murderer at any cost since the case affects him pretty much, too. Together with his partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) he arrests some suspects and tortures them until he gets a confession. Yet, the investigation only starts to make progress when Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul volunteers to help out the police. Seo works accurately, going through every fact they know over and over again. They go after some clues, but it doesn't take the two partners Seo and Park long to clash. Their differences cause them to figure out some important clues too late. But even when they finally have a real suspect, the case is about to go to hell because of the absent assistance of the military dictatorship. The biggest investigation scandal in South Korea's history starts to take place...
Review: "Memories of Murder" doesn't have its title for no reason. In fact, the director tells a story based on a series
of murders that actually took place in South Korea. The shocking thing about the movie is the incapability with which
the investigators approach the case. Not being prepared for a murder series like this they stumble from one crime
scene to the next and more than once they just look like complete idiots. However, they are not alone to be blamed.
Director Bong Joon-ho imbues his film with lots of criticism on the military dictatorship in South Korea during the 80s. At the same time he manages skillfully to capture the zeitgeist and works on a subtle level with the pictures and the atmosphere, so that the viewer is soon absorbed by the movie. At first, it seems that there is not much happening and sometimes some characters or events appear somewhat stereotypical, yet much of what is shown really happened that way. Bong first and foremost doesn't want to bring your typical cop-thriller on screen, but wants to put the desperation and incapability of the police at that time in the spotlight. And this he does perfectly.
"Memories of Murder" takes its time to tell its story, nevertheless never becomes boring or lengthy. In a wonderful opening scene in which we get a foretaste of the movie's atmosphere by the use of pictures of a golden field, Detective Park is introduced to us. He finds the first victim and soon we get to see how he investigates the case - without any clear investigation methods whatsoever. He believes that merely by looking into a culprit's eyes he can learn something about him. Actually, he just capriciously catches some suspects and beats the living hell out of them until they confess whatever he wants them to confess. Interestingly enough Park can arouse sympathy, nonetheless. His character is as emotionally involved because of the gruesome murders as Detective Seo is, who then joins the investigation team, even though Seo has a scientifically approved system with which he attempts to solve the case. Pursuing hints strongly in a scientific way he gets more results than Park which naturally leads to some quarrels.
Reporter trample on evidence, forensics who aren't at the crime scene when they should or a tractor, who just runs over important foot prints, because the crime scene isn't marked off. Here, not only "CSI"-fans will groan in despair. Park may have his heart in the right place, but his methods of working are rather counterproductive. How else would you describe it that for days he visits the sauna having a look at the most intimate places of the guests only because the victims didn't have any pubic hair on them like it usually is the case. Leading Park to the conclusion that the murderer doesn't have any pubic hair. Well, as you can see the movie also doesn't lack some great humor.
Actually, the first hour is more of a comedy. Most of the time long shots without any cut create a wonderful dynamic atmosphere and especially in the dialogues there is lots of situation comedy, that will almost make you die of laughter. This is also one of the reasons why it is rather easy to find your way into the movie, even though this fantastic amount of humor is not to be found in the end anymore. But then the film can make up for it with its more dark, gritty and thrilling mood.
If it all would be only about Park, then you might think that the case caused difficulties because it was taken on by an inapt detective. However, Seo who joins the team nearly seems to be doing everything right. He just hasn't the resources or the necessary investigation tools to make any progress. Moreover, and herein lies the crux of the movie, he has to deal with a dictatorship that is busy inducing pointless alarm-drills or quelling rebelling democratically orientated student movements, instead of providing him with some men who could have helped him finding the murderer.
The way director Bong Joon-ho ("Barking Dogs Never Bite") captures the 80s is refreshingly discreet. Every now and then we see some protestants, hear the sirens or see the military counter an insurgency. This, however, always stays in the background giving it more weight in its meaning than it would have if you had just inserted it inappositely in the film.
Sex crimes and murder cases, especially the ones we have here, have the tendency to be very brutal. That's the same here, even though one did without showing all too explicit scenes. Nevertheless, there are some very disturbing scenes. The atmosphere is always tense and that the murder always takes place when it rains adds even more to the gritty mood without drifting into any clichés or to remind is too strongly of   "Se7en".
Lots of small details please the eye. First of all there are the actors, who do a wonderful job. Song Kang-ho ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "The Foul King") plays a multilayered character, who fortunately doesn't get lost in the stereotype of the sappy investigator, but instead has quite something to offer. He gets aware of his mistakes and his character develops as Kim Sang-kyung's ("Tale of Cinema") character does, so that at the end we nearly have something like a credible change of roles.
Apart from the great outdoor shots, there is especially one scene that is pretty overwhelming. The killer has to choose between a school girl and Park's girlfriend as his next victim, since they both pass each other on the road in front of him, turning into different directions. Of course, indirectly the viewer also has to choose and doing so you just have to get a bad feeling...
"Memories of Murder" proves to be a very thrilling, even if somewhat simple cop-thriller, that will excite you with the outstanding magic of its pictures. At the same time it is a document of time. Since the movie is based on real events you shouldn't be all too bothered when at the end you have too many loose ends in yours hands. The only real sore point is that the movie feels a little bit long with its 130 minutes running time and that the investigators go round in circles concerning their case quite too often. For this the excellent rest can make up for: Great actors, an outstanding atmosphere, an extremely well done soundtrack by Taro Iwashiro ("Azumi") and one of the most powerful last pictures you have ever seen in a movie. Furthermore, the film contains an excellently subtly inserted message: The real killer wasn't the culprit himself, but the system that didn't seem to be able to put a stop to the murderers doings...