With the proliferation of CSI clones and spin-offs, police drama focused on the fine points of forensic investigation should be close to saturation point. How many more times can one watch assiduous officials pore over the details of a corpse or hover on their haunches at a crime site?
The 2003 film Memories of Murder, newly released on DVD by Palm Pictures, not only brings a fresh perspective to the subgenre, but also thoughtfully considers Korea’s political framework, the relationship between urban and rural mindsets, and the impact of homicide on those who work to solve it. It might be termed nouveau film noir, police procedural, psychological study or political allegory, with a plot inspired by an actual 1986 case in Hwaseong, a village south of Seoul. These murders of women were the first serial killings in the country and took place over several years, during a period of national political upheaval. Without pressing the point aggressively, Bong underscores how the killer’s motivations emerge from extreme repression. The rage that drives him parallels the suppressed energies of the community at large.
The picture begins with a gorgeously filmed landscape of rural tranquility, immediately broken by the discovery of the first corpse. Almost as quickly, one sees a police force in over its head, without sufficient resources, training or, in some cases, even common sense. The local lead investigator, the heavyset and congenitally cocky Park (Song Kang-ho), places his confidence in the few clues on the scene to survive the hubbub, as well as the use of physical force to extract confessions. The first object of their zeal is a local retarded man, whose webbed hands would seem to count him out altogether. Yet this detail does not dissuade Park from smacking him around.
Almost immediately, however, assistance arrives in the person of a smooth and soft-spoken inspector from Seoul, Suh (Kim Sang-kyung). Exhibiting antithetical personalities and investigatory styles, they work side by side, yet rarely cooperate or even agree upon evidence, motive or consequence. Suh recognizes that the murders are not random, as they each involves falling rain, red clothed victims, and the request for a song, “Sad Letter,” on the local radio. Despite these pieces of evidence, both the killer and his motives remain hieroglyphs, which Park believes he can untangle and Suh allows to overwhelm his confidence and alter his personality.
Bong allows the film to wear its metaphysics lightly. The killer never succumbs to that now overplayed transformation into the personification of heightened evil. He is a physically powerful, compulsively driven homicidal maniac: no more and no less. You have the sense that even when Park and Suh attack their suspects, they are trashing away as much at their own vulnerability as they are the innocent individual before them. When they become convinced after an exhilaratingly shot chase that a young factory worker, Baek (Park Noh-shik), must be their man, the suspect’s affectless features remind one that evil, if in fact he is guilty, often wears a vacant visage.
Memories of Murder builds to a stunning climax, only to shift some years into the future and conclude on a note of hushed yet haunting horror. We return once again to the lush beauty of the opening, the field where the first corpse lay under a small bridge in a brackish ditch. What occurs to Park reminds us that the impenetrability of a physical landscape evades our intelligence as much as the inscrutability of the human heart. The film proves too that even if questions never receive complete answers, we have nonetheless learned something.