Memories of Murder (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Two women are found dead, one in a ditch and the other in a rice paddy, which shakes a rural South Korean town inside out because nothing quite like it has happened there before. Detective Park (Kang-ho Song) and Detective Cho (Roe-ha Kim) are assigned to solve the cases and bring about justice. However, it is 1986 and proper steps in order to secure a corpse from journalists, cops, and various onlookers are not yet available. This makes finding subtle but critical clues that can help point the investigators in the right direction especially difficult.
Written by Joon-ho Bong, Kwang-rim Kim, and Sung Bo Shim, “Salinui chueok” commands a certain tragic lyricism despite having occasional bursts of comic relief because it consistently underlines the limitations of people wanting desperately to solve a crime. I enjoyed the way my opinions of the characters change throughout the film, especially when it comes to Detective Park and Detective Seo (Sang-kyung Kim), the former from around the area and the latter from Seoul.
Initially, Detective Park’s sarcasm and quirk in finding humor within the macabre communicates a lack seriousness when it comes to his job and sympathy for the grieving families. In allowing the screenplay to submerge the audience in one tub of failure after another without us having much time to breathe in between, we begin to notice how tired he has become of losing, that perhaps our initial judgment of him is unfair.
It is a draining experience, not in a negative but in an engaging way, because just when the cops seem so close in finding the serial killer with the aid of events aligning properly, the requisite resources in order to close the deal are not always available at their disposal. Think of Jenga: you are so certain that the piece you are about to pull will not compromise the tower but the last-second slight tremor on your fingertip causes the entire stack to go down in flames.
As the sadness in the veins of the film begins to pulsate, an air of hopelessness starts to dominate the professional and private spheres of the detectives. Although this does not stop them from attempting to find an answer, they are not always interested in looking for the answer. There is a difference and, eventually, one cannot help but question the ethics behind their intentions and actions.
Detective Seo’s role in the case is key because his character provides a clear arc. At first, he seems like a knowledgeable, self-aware, and practical problem solver. As with Detective Park, our opinion of him changes, too. His yearning to do what is right for the dead women is, as it turns out, not incorruptible.
Director Joon-ho Bong has a great handle on the mood and pacing. He is not afraid to experiment in terms of clashing and complementing the light and dark aspects of the screenplay. However, this comes at a cost at times. Unexplored characters like Detective Cho and Detective Park’s wives are left on the wayside for the majority of the time. They have dramatic moments much later in the picture but none of it feels earned. It feels awkward that we are supposed to sympathize when we do not know much about them.
“Salinui chueok,” also known as “Memories of Murder” is inspired by real murders and it shows. When we are given a chance to look at a dead body, it is appropriately intriguing for the sake of seeing one but there is undeniable gloom and horror in it, too. It feels authentic which makes it all the more disconcerting.