MEMOIR OF A MURDERER (2017)
Lushly dark and remorselessly gritty, a former serial killer with Alzheimer’s suspects his daughter’s new boyfriend may possess a flair for his murderous bygone craft
A strong contender for a film that may become hindered by a lost-in-translation film title in non-Korean settings, Memoir of a Murderer is a rebadge from the literal ‘A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization’. Its new title lands it in neighbour territory to Korean masterpiece Memories of Murder (2003) – the equivalent of releasing Schindler’s Mist and wondering why people are stumped.
That is a mere global marketing quirk though and should not distract from the gritty and surprising thrills that Won Shin-yun has crafted from Kim Young-ha’s bestselling book, anchored superbly with another star-turn by Sol Kyung-gu (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, Silmido, Hope). Memoir of a Murderer has many of the trademark Korean thriller tropes, but does plenty to be inimitable too.
Byeong-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) had killed his abusive father as a teen, leading to a belief that perhaps some people just deserve such a fate. Convinced of this, he embarks on a serial killing spree, burying his victims in a bamboo grove.
He later gets into a car accident and injures his head, leading him down the path of degenerative Alzheimer’s disease. It is enough to stop his killing, encouraging him to return to his job as a veterinarian and concentrating on raising his daughter Eun-hee (Kim Seol-hyun – Gangnam Blues).
As his condition worsens and his memory starts to fade, he begins to type out everything in a memoir and, just like Mi-ja in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010), he attends poetry classes, impressing with his vivid descriptions of murders.
Eun-hee then starts to date Tae-joo (Kim Nam-gil – Portrait of a Beauty, Pandora), a local policeman, while young women have started to be murdered in the area again. While Byeong-soo suspects Tae-joo of the killings, his crumbling memory means he also suspects himself.
The concept of the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, depicted in a poignant nature in Poetry, is given The Chaser (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010) grisly thriller makeover here. What these memory lapses offers is enough narrative ambiguity that we share Byeong-soo’s uncertainty (without, we hope, the serial killer impulses).
The name similarities aside, there are also parallels to Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, especially in its rural crime elements and often its spectacular cinematography. It is perhaps that element which best elevates Memoir of a Murderer – it is always gorgeously framed despite being a film focused on intergenerational serial killing. Those wonderful bamboos groves, also used well in romance classic One Fine Spring Day (2001), aids this goal greatly.
Despite these grim themes, there is much about the depths of love in a father-daughter relationship here. For all the life Byeong-soo has taken, he continues to live on himself – despite his difficult disease – solely to see his daughter another day.
There are some challenging elements around having a serial killer as a protagonist with some leanings that attempt to play on our sympathies, but such is the thrust of the film’s thrills, this is of secondary concern.