The movies are one of many places where we hang our cultural dirty laundry out to dry, and for a country with as troubled and difficult a recent past as Korea, Memories of Murder is unquestionably part of that process. This isn’t so much a “thriller” or a “police procedural” as it is an act of spiritual atonement: These things happened—maybe not exactly in this form, but in this manner—and the mere act of making them public and explicit is a relief. That said, Murder is also a great entertainment. It has the ingredients of a thriller, but the format and pacing of a black comedy veering over into tragedy.
Murder takes place over a stretch of six years, 1986 to 1991, when South Korea was essentially a police state and the cops spent more time persecuting people on general principles than actually solving crimes. It stars Kang-ho Song, one of Korea’s finest actors (he had pivotal roles in both Shiri and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as Park, a policeman in a rural town, the sort of place where tractors are about as common as pickup trucks and driven around about as freely. One day a farmer discovers a dead girl in a covered drainage ditch, her hands tied together and her clothes stripped off and abandoned nearby. She is the first victim of a serial killer who will rape and kill nine more women over the next six years.
The scene where the body is discovered has two ingredients, both subtle, that might escape notice at first. When Park kneels down to look in the ditch, he has to scare up a piece of broken glass from the debris in the roadside so that he can bounce sunlight into the tunnel to see what’s going on. In short, he has no flashlight—one of the most common pieces of equipment that even cops in the most rural sections of the United States have handy. The second thing to look for is the kid who hops on top of the drainage ditch and starts mocking him—imitating him word for word, movement for moment. If even the kids know that the cops are shiftless and corrupt, what chance do they have of stopping someone genuinely dangerous?
The police have the deck stacked against them. They have to deal with cranky typewriters, no coordination with other departments (as many of them are often sent to suppress demonstrators), and most of all, their own limited training as police. Their work up until now has mostly been limited to hauling in drunks and beating up political dissidents. They have never dealt with a crime of this scope or magnitude. Park is at least halfway competent, and is absolutely incensed when he comes to a crime scene to find that it hasn’t even been roped off, that children were allowed to run through it and play with evidence, and that reporters are crawling all over the place and snapping pictures of yet another dead girl. (His cork really pops when a tractor drives right over a crucial footprint, despite him hollering and waving.)
The initial evidence is scant, and mostly based on rumor and hearsay rather than actual proof. In a town that small, wouldn’t the killer be someone they all know in some way? And sure enough, Park’s attention is drawn to the son of a local merchant, a slightly retarded young man who seems to have a penchant for following women around. Park takes the boy in and interrogates him—which is a thinly disguised way of saying he alternately bullies and talks man-to-man with him, feeds him leading statements, trying to get him to confess to something he almost certainly never did. There’s an upsetting scene where Park’s thuggish partner puts on army boots, pulls a cloth bag over his foot (“so it won’t leave scratches”), and begins stomping the boy into submission.
Another detective, (Sang-kyung Kim, also seen in Turning Gate), a Seoul native, volunteers to come out and help. When he first shows up in town, Park mistakes him for a rapist and almost beats the hell out of him. He’s appalled by the way everything is being handled, like how Park casually manufactures a piece of evidence and tries to use that to force a confession. He’s also completely unconvinced the boy is guilty: He can’t even hold chopsticks with those crippled fingers of his, he fulminates, so how could he possibly have tied those girls up and strangled them? There’s a scene that follows from this that’s both funny and painful, when the boy is forced to re-enact one of the crimes for a public press conference and the whole thing turns into a wretched circus. The cops are not angry that they have the wrong man, but that they have been so thoroughly humiliated in the public eye; their image is more important than the actual work they do.
Despite all of this, the police are able to puzzle together a few clues: the killer attacks pretty women wearing red, and strikes on rainy nights (presumably to help wash away any accumulated evidence). Then another odd piece of evidence surfaces: the killer always phones in a request for a certain popular song to a local radio station. They find more bodies, real footprints, and even come to the odd conclusion that the killer might not have any pubic hair. The clues only seem to lead them further from the truth, as when they apprehend another possible suspect—a compulsive masturbator—and discover that while he may be a pervert (and most definitely a wretched housekeeper), he’s probably not a murderer. Then they find their most likely suspect of all, but are unable to make a single thing stick due to their own incompetence.
Murder has a based-on-a-true-story feel to it, and indeed it was based, however loosely, on a true story. The details of the crime are not as important as the general flavor of events, like how the detectives study evidence at their desk with flashlights during air raids. Ditto the characterization: Park tries, however clumsily, to make up for falsely accusing the retarded boy; he buys him a new pair of sneakers, but they’re cheap knockoffs. He also resents the “help” of the city detective, partly because he imagines himself to be at least as good, but mainly because he feels real detective work is done with the legs and arms, not the head. At one point they get drunk and he delivers a hilarious monologue about how the reason the United States has the FBI is because the country is so big—“while our Republic of Korea is the size of my dick.” (Later, they do employ the help of DNA testing from the FBI—but when the results come back, they realize all too belatedly that none of them can read English.)
The acting and directing are all topnotch. The director, Joon-ho Bong, was responsible for one other critically-acclaimed film I have not seen yet, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and re-employed Song (along with another excellent Korean staple actor, Ji-tae Yu of Oldboy) in his recent Antarctic Journal. Kang-ho Song, as Park, is great at everyman-type roles—he made the factory owner in Vengeance into a fully-realized character by holding back instead of throwing himself into frenzies. He’s been a regular in Korean film ever since The Day A Pig Fell Into the Well (Sang-soo Hong’s first film), and has appeared in several movies that are absolute musts: JSA, The Foul King, The Quiet Family, Shiri and of course Vengeance itself. He has one truly great moment in the film, the very last shot, where he stares directly into the camera and we feel the weight of years crashing down.
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