MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003)
It is 1986, in South Korea. In a small village, a young woman is found raped and brutally murdered. The local police force is completely caught off guard, and have no idea how to handle the situation. Then another body is found, and they realize they are dealing with a serial killer, which they are completely unequipped to deal with. Detective Park (Song Kang-Ho, of SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE and JOINT SECURITY AREA) and his partner resort do what they do best - hauling in suspects on the slimmest of evidence and "interrogate" them endlessly hoping to get a confession.
When Detective Seo arrives from Seoul, he brings with him a more sophisticated set of police skills, and quickly dismisses the suspects captured based on a little real investigating. However, the damage has already been done, and the village citizens know all about the interrogation tactics being used to try and find the suspect, which makes their job even harder. As months pass, and other women fall victim to the killer, small yet crucial clues focus the police squad's eyes on a local factory employee. But they find in this suspect an adversary that will not submit to a few threats, and proclaims his innocence. Is this the man they've been after, or merely another faux-suspect that merely matches their shaky evidence?
Based on the true serial killings in South Korea that took place between 1986 and 1991, MEMORIES OF MURDER is a gritty, downbeat detective film that rivals SEVEN for its intelligence and character analysis. Director and co-writer Bong Joon-Ho (whose current film THE HOST is tearing up cinemas worldwide) carefully and slowly unfolds this tale that focuses on the pressure and stress of Detectives Park and Seo as they struggle against each other in terms of tactics and struggle to find common ground that will allow them to finally capture the killer. He uses subtle camerawork to capture the progressing story, and slips into a Cops-documentary style to get the more frantic scenes. This particular style culminates in a spectacular and spinning nighttime foot chase through the village.
Bong tackles some hard topics, as he focuses on the slightly-inept police force who simply want to find a suspect and close the case, the all-too-familiar interrogation room tactics used. These are some of the more disturbing scenes of the film, and certainly the most graphic in terms of violence. The film is decidedly anti-police brutality, as important and valuable time is lost as the characters take the easy route in kicking and torturing innocent suspects, which leads to more victims being killed. The actual killings are all done off camera, with only the aftermath shown briefly, which creates the huge grey area that the film lives in. Here, there is no black and white, and even the best intentions by the protagonists are bruised with bloodied knuckles.
Song Kang-Ho and Kim Sang-Kyung (who portrays Detective Seo) fully immerse themselves in their respective roles. While at first Park is the time-bomb cop who does what he needs to get results and Seo stays even-tempered and calculating, as the film progresses the dynamic roles slowly reverse. Park matures his style as he realizes what a real detective is supposed to be, while Seo becomes unhinged dealing with hopeless frustration. The character switch completes itself during the film's climax, as Seo falls from grace with a single pistol-whip while Park redeems himself as he finally puts his full trust in lab paperwork.
At over two hours, the film does take its time to get to each of its destinations. For those that have become fully acclimated to Hong Kong and Korean pacing, there should be little difficulty waiting out the slower scenes. There is little action to be had during the entire picture, and even the "adrenaline" pumped scenes barely get above a steady jog. This is 100% conversation-based cop drama. The only main problem, which is purely subjective, is the film's lack of time pacing and the immense criminal investigation. There are no dates given as the film progresses to present the length of passed time - the movie starts with the first murder in 1986, but no way to tell how many years into the investigation the film goes, nor is there any scope to the epic scale that the case covers. According to the film's trailer, over 3000 suspects where checked and thousands of police officers where involved, however the actual film give the assumption the suspects and police involved are centralized to the village area the murders take place in.
For Eastern Asian crime-and-investigation junkies, this is a no brainer to watch. Past that, it becomes a crap shoot. The film is not very enjoyable, due to the harsh subject matter, and if you enjoy your cops with a healthy dose of pulp-action this should probably be skipped. Suffice it to say, if you liked SEVEN and can take the grimmer episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, definitely keep this one in mind.