Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kwang-rim Kim, Sung Bo Shim
Loosely based on the events surrounding South Korea's first serial killings, which remain unsolved, at least as of this writing, Memories of Murder would make a perfect double-feature with Zodiac, even though in many ways it's like the anti-Zodiac. The two movies, in their own ways, recreate the hunt-for-the-killer pic; but while Fincher's masterful drag-out attacks the genre by chipping away at its heart, Memories of Murder retains the genre's foundations while redressing its peripherals. That is, Bong revitalizes the serial-killer movie by taking the essence of the form and nailing it spot on with distinctive élan, creating, despite the somewhat tired premise, a genre film that largely eschews the generic.
The early scenes are unexpectedly laugh-out-loud funny, as in one early, virtuosic, uninterrupted sequence in which Inspector Park (Kang-ho Song) can't keep his crime scene under control, nor his evidence from being destroyed. (While everyone who enters the scene slips and falls down a small hill.) At first, Memories plays out as a farcical procedural that's silly but yet never goofy. As the film progresses, though, the lighthearted approach is outstripped by a building sense of frustration and anxiety; the film sheds its slapstick skin as the murders recapture their rightful solemnity (although Park's partner repeatedly dropkicks suspects throughout the movie, and every time it's hilarious), suggesting that the humor was something of a defense mechanism for dealing with the grisly nature of the crimes that ultimately proves itself ineffective. This is serious, after all—one of the slain women's vaginas is stuffed with sliced peaches; that's so funny that it's not funny anymore. As one of the actors intones on the DVD special features, Bong "made this movie with a sincere heart" and its earnest prevails.
At the film's core is a comment on contemporary culture clash, a divide between Korea's urban areas and its rural regions, where the film is set. (Though pinning down the film as a mere struggle between two ways of life in the modern world would be an inaccurately incomplete representation; it's only one piece of a multifarious film.) After the bodies start to pile up, Inspector Suh (Sang-kyung Kim) arrives from Seoul to aid in the investigation. The locals view him with a contemptuous resentment—he's got a degree from a four-year college, while Park's partner spent four years in the ninth grade. Suh, the model of a modern police officer, sums up his outlook with a catch phrase repeated throughout the film: "documents never lie." But even when he takes charge, properly preserving evidence and sending off clues to America for scientific analysis, he still yields no leads. Inspector Park, meanwhile, thinks himself something of a psychic, and seems to spend more time staring into people's eyes and trying to frame a dunderhead than actually investigating the case. While both inspectors' intentions are noble, their arrogance, which proves unfounded in the face of an unsolved case, helps turn them into ambivalently sympathetic characters. More to the point, every character and every way of life presented in the film is flawed and somewhat unlikable, the lack of clear heroes fashioning the sort of knotty drama Hollywood seldom has the derring-do to make anymore.
But Hollywood itself figures as a large part of the investigators' problem—the film's most interesting criticism is of exported American culture, despite mimicking, to an extent, American film. (Ultimately I think it's fair to say that it finds a language all its own.) While containing some implicit critiques of Korea—like in a later scene in which the detectives believe they know when the killer is going to strike again but the government won't lend them extra men to help because they need them to suppress a political demonstration—the film is more conspicuously critical of the United States, subtly suggesting that serial killing itself is a smuggled-in Americanism; meanwhile, the ineffective police officers consciously behave like American-movie cops, vacillating between the bungling Keystone variety and the Dirty Harry-style vigilante. At one point, while coercing a suspect's confession, a police officer says, "This time, be realistic, like in a movie." In the end, Memories of Murder is about characters who tragically think they're in an American film, when in fact they're actually, helplessly, in Gyeonggi Province, facing a homicidal sociopath with no such cinematic pretensions. When the clues don't add up to a neat denouement, it's devestating for them, and for us.