MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003)
Bong Joon-ho's first masterpiece is a rural crime mystery focused on the obsession of the detectives and their fear of failure
It is a tall task to take a well-publicised true crime story, fold it into the familiar crime-detective genre, and manage to produce something so startlingly original, utterly surprising and for large parts, hilarious too.
The success of placing so many seemingly impossible square pegs and duly placing them in round holes has since become a trademark of Director Bong, but his second feature film announced him as genre-blending auteur he would come be recognised worldwide.
Memories of Murder is based on the Hwaseong serial murders which took place between October 1986 and April 1991, where at least 10 similar murders were committed in the area.
In the film, we open in 1986 as two women are found raped and murdered in a ditch, pulling in rural detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) who is instantly overwhelmed in his first case of this magnitude.
Evidence collection is duly botched, the police methods are amateur and there is no support from forensic technology. Park instead attempts to harness some home-spun detective approaches, such as determining suspects by eye contact, at first accusing a local boy with mental capability issues.
Alongside him is partner Cho (Kim Roi-ha), a violent enforcer and police brutaliser who provides the muscle to Park’s slap-dash approach to justice.
Soon Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a competent detective from Seoul, joins them and is left amazed by their lax approach to the case. Seo is able to provide some genuine detective know-how to the case, much to Park’s embarrassment and chagrin.
As the murders continue, Park and Cho continue to pursue their hamstrung splatter-gun approach, while Seo makes genuine head way by following local rumours back to a survivor of the killer. Eventually, the rural wildcards and the city expert combine forces in an attempt to find the killer.
In a now familiar Director Bong troupe, there is ample light comedy from the outset, with the complexity of the characters and the desperation of the situation escalating as the search intensifies.
It is one of Song Kang-ho's best performances, perhaps his very best, which considering his filmography is brimming with star-turns, highlights the strength of this outing. Song, who always works masterfully alongside Director Bong, is perfectly able to flicker between detective Park’s comedic side, but also the angst he feels at his failure.
The film’s closing shot is a now iconic one. A shot where Detective Park stares back at us, at the audience, which at the time included the real-life killer. Song’s impassioned eyes tries to find his target among us and it is an intensity we feel burn right screen.
While the details of the case drive the story forward, it is the trio of detectives that holds the emotional core of the film together. You feel Park’s envy at Seo’s more proficient approach and as obsession grows to solve the case, such feelings of inadequacy fest and grow.
The film scooped the major prizes at the 2003 Grand Bell Awards, including best film, best director and best actor for Song. It also embarked on a stellar film festivals tour taking in Cannes, London and Tokyo.
Director Bong would go onto even bigger international recognition, but many argue this is still his finest film. It is not an argument without merit.