A police procedural like no other, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) has the epic aura of a sociographic novel, but you won’t see a less pretentious movie this year. Set in 1986 and loosely based on what’s been called South Korea’s first serial-killer case, the film encourages ambivalences to grow like super-weeds, gumming up what is traditionally experienced as the most logical of narrative pleasures. An entire battered swath of recent Korean history sneaks into the movie’s margins, underneath its deadpan surfaces, and amid the unsolvable mysteries of dark places, moonlit fields, and unseen events. It’s an altogether remarkable piece of work, deepening the genre while whipping its skin off, satirizing an entire nation’s nearsighted apathy as it wonders, almost aloud, about the nature of truth, evidence, and social belonging.
The big bites are discreetly taken, and little in Bong’s previous film—2000’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, a droll rom-com-as-dog-eating satire—suggested the grace and originality at work in Memories. Our point man is Detective Park (Song Kang-ho), a blustery, boorish jerk stationed in an unnamed semi-rural burg (the real murders took place in Gyeonggi Province) whose battery of half-assed, TV-derived investigative ideas have gone as yet untried. The first body—a hog-tied girl, killed and dressed in a fetishistic manner—is found under a covered gutter by a shimmering rye field, and immediately the crime scene is destroyed by passersby, children, and inept police work. Bong sustains this in a two-minute tour de force traveling shot, as Park bounces from one social intersection and forensic disaster to another and we get a 3-D sense of how difficult it is here to know anything for certain.
Bong never emphasizes the moral horror of the case, nor the psychological g-forces the cops might incur—Park and his combustible partner Jo (Kim Roe-ha) regularly torture their suspects, and there’s no glimpse inside their skulls. (Bong gazes at the abuse, particularly of a retarded man, so calmly and without inflection that the scenes slither over into black comedy.) Empathic bonding is an auxiliary concern, to say the least. The duo is eventually joined by Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), a cliché of a laconic, handsome city cop who dismisses Park’s caveman antics but who, it turns out, is also out of his element as more bodies appear, and the tantalizing clues pile up.
As with the history the movie dances with, irony is in no short supply.
Memories of Murder is about national, not personal, character—the slogan-sustained, terror-generating Chun dictatorship is just another hidden-in-plain-sight vice compulsion, as much a murderous habit as virtually everything in Bong’s film, from the cops’ Gitmo-style transgressions and the killer’s unseen spree to the binge drinking and a pitiable, caught-in-the-act masturbator’s crime scene peccadilloes. The police chief disciplines Jo for drop-kicking a suspect in mid-interrogation by stomping him down the stairs; in the background, countrywide civil-defense orders and gas attack drills
are ubiquitous. Park and Seo might make their way through a Molotov-ignited street protest, but they see nothing out of the ordi
nary—blind men in the fog.
That Memories of Murder locates a potent sense of rue and melancholy among its sly metaphors and ravishing landscapes full of hiding places might be the best measure of its achievement. Like the year’s other world-class Korean imports, Oldboy and Save the Green Planet
, the film’s storytelling strategy is unique and its point-of-view mutable and disarmingly subjective. The performances, particularly by Song, can be as broad as a freeway, but somehow Bong’s judgment-free lyricism keeps it all in balanced context. In the end, the semi-true story’s many unvoiced questions—lurking in that dark roadside gully and elsewhere—remain just out of reach. If you pick over the memory of the movie enough, everything is a mystery.