It's a shame we have to read subtitles to gauge just how good a foreign movie is. The problem is that persuading audiences to watch foreign-language films by directors they've never heard of has never been easy even if the movie in question works better than most Hollywood mundane thrillers.
Joon-ho Bong directed the satirical monster-movie “The Host” in 2006. Before that he did a ultimately melancholy true-crime drama, "Memories of Murder(2003)." The movie is based on South Korea’s first instance of serial murders, which spanned from 1986 to 1991.The movie is a powerful, slow-burning portrait of human fallibility centered on a real-life series of unsolved murders in a country town. Part low-key character comedy, part atmospheric chiller, it establishes a unique vision.
Plot23 October 1986 : the body of a woman is found in a drainage ditch in a field. The investigating officer is Sergeant Park Doo-Man (Kang-ho Song), who's happier beating rather than convicting suspects. Within minutes of his arrival, the crime scene is in disarray as a tractor drives over a vital piece of evidence and kids run wild through the field. Then, another woman is discovered dead with unspeakable injuries and violations to her body. In a country like Korea, where multiple killings are unusual, this proves overwhelming for the small-time detectives.
Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Gyung), a smart guy from the big city who is familiar with profiling, psychology, and other sophisticated techniques of police work arrives to the town. Predictably, the newcomer's subtle ways clash with the local partners, especially when he proves that all their suspects are innocent. It seems that the victims have all worn red when killed; the nights have always been rainy; and a certain song hit has always been requested on a postcard sent to a radio station just before the killer strikes.
Does any of this lead to the right man? How long does this case take? These are the mind-teasing questions that power "Memories of Murder," which is very exciting for its narrative twists.
AnalysisThe real-life events which the film uses saw 10 women raped and murdered within a close radius in a small town in south of Seoul, during 1986-'91. The victims ranged from a 13-year-old school girl to a 71-year-old grandmother; the cause of death ranged from strangulation to stabbing. The perpetrator was was dubbed South Korea's first serial killer. Also, the forensic crime solving was in its infancy. Samples in Korea had to be sent to the United States or Japan. Many of these submissions were sent back unexamined because the labs were overloaded with other requests.
Serial-killer movies tend to be about the uses and abuses of the female body. As might be expected, the victims in "Memories of Murder" are all women, caught alone, unaware, then raped, executed and left to rot. But, "Memories of Murder" throws a veil of mourning over the story. Director Bong's film never loses sight of the fact that all that ravaged flesh was once human. He also spent considerable time interviewing many of the real people involved with the case.
What distinguishes "Memories of Murder," setting it apart from regular thrillers, is its singular mix of gallows humor and unnerving solemnity. Much of the humor comes at the expense of the detectives, whose ineffectiveness is at once appalling and comical. Bong makes wonderful use of the atmosphere. Its somber landscape with its diverse ditches, alleys and tunnels and the pouring rain that accompanies the crimes, all gives us a satisfying experience.
All three detectives are distinctive and memorable. These detectives are dogged, but not downtrodden, and the movie shows their lives, however tortured, outside the case. "Memories of Murder" shifts the focus away from crimes into the desperate measures of detecting them. So, stylized character study with a mix of docu-drama makes this movie taut, and a effective thriller. A must watch for crime genre fans.