Think of cinema. The cinema we know nowadays, the cinema that has always prevailed in theaters, the cinema that makes the most money in the film industry is American cinema. Now, what would you say if I told you that in my opinion, South Korean cinema is equally good if not better in quality than the American one? Think about it. Is an industry that produces hundreds of movies per year really better than one that chooses wisely and spends its money responsibly? South Korean cinema has blessed us with movies like the following thrillers such as Oldboy, The Man from Nowhere, I Saw the Devil but also incredible war stories told from the Korean point of view; Taegukgi, The Front Line and 71: Into Fire. As you can see most subject matters are dark at first sight but as you begin to watch the movies I just listed you’ll notice there is more to it. There is family, brotherly love, sacrifice, humor, friendship, betrayal, anger, happiness. I like to think of it as the cinema of the unexpected. It can make you cry and it make you laugh, but one thing is for sure: once it hits you, it’ll never leave you. And the prime example of this is the cop thriller, Memories of Murder from 2003, a story of obsession with beauty and innocence wrapped in a slimy, disturbing world of violence.
The movie at first glance is your typical detective story of two detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in a South Korean province in 1986. It is in fact, a true story. Brace yourselves. It is the story of the first serial killer in the history of South Korea, who on every rainy night murders an innocent woman dressed in red, whistling an unpopular love song. He murders his victims with the use of their clothes; strangling them with their underwear, their bras, etc. The deaths are violent, cruel, brutal and meaningless. And yet, Bong Joon-ho, the director (also known for 2014’s Snowpiercer), manages to make it a beautiful experience, during which the viewer learns of the humanity hidden behind the killings and the people involved in the investigation. The two detectives, Park (played by an outstanding and always reliable Song Kang-Ho) and Cho, are two very different men. Different values, different methods. Cho is an acclaimed detective from Seoul. He is a big shot in Park’s eyes, but doesn’t act like one. As the investigation progresses the two begin to behave similarly. Their actions become blunt and irresponsible, their methods of interrogation become ruthless, their goal starts fading.
Heavy stuff, huh? Well, you’ll find humor in it, because life, as hard as it can be, is sarcastic, goofy and funny. Bong Joon-ho keeps getting back to an important element of the story: the gag of a character being literally kicked off the screen. Whenever there is a suspect for interrogation, he gets kicked off by a policeman wearing army boots. The irony is that the policemen later on has his leg amputated, but that’s as far as I’ll go into the story. Park, the more physical detective, likes to beat on his suspects. But he also knows when someone is guilty. Maybe not by looking at record sheets, or at evidence, but by looking straight into the suspect’s soul. Meanwhile, Cho is reasonable. He likes to think. But does it pay off? That’s the question the viewer should pose himself. Does sitting in the back, watching, studying, help at all? Sometimes you shouldn’t hold back. Eventually no one in the movie does.
The shots are steady. The only time the camera tracks a character from behind and does it all in one long take is when the environment is too big for us to discover on our own. Bong Joon-ho captures the countryside landscapes adding great warmth to the image. However, the images begin to look colder once the two detectives begin to get closer to the possible murderer. That is what we usually say, right? Cold hard facts.
The whole film is a dark poem, kind of like last year’s Sicario, where men fight men without knowing why. Without knowing what is good and what is bad. Without realizing that they are monsters on their own. Because essentially, Memories of Murder is about good men covered by the skin of a monster. They try to get out of it. Break free. Catch the real monster who keeps killing innocent women. Everything is unexpected. Everything comes and goes and you have to be there to catch it in time. But even if you break free, you’ll be caught in a maze of terror. And the murderer? The real monster? He’ll be out there. Waiting. Hiding. Watching.