by John A. Riley
A body found in a ditch in a remote rural area. Violent cops with no qualms about roughing up suspects. Rivalry between the rural cops and the big city detective who’s assigned to the case as it becomes clear there’s a serial killer on the loose. The well-worn tropes of the detective and police procedural genres are, in Memories of Murder, reinvigorated and fashioned into something sly and critical that retains a hard-hitting power.
The film takes place at a time of great unrest in South Korea, but the film’s comments on this are seemingly oblique at first; for a domestic audience there was no need to underline or spell out General Chun Doo-hwan’s last-ditch attempts to keep control of the country and to suppress the democracy movement. Brief scenes of protest turning to riot invoke this trauma.
The implication is that it’s this unrest that has laid the foundations not only for the heavy-handed, unethical police work (they have to be the two most ham-fisted detectives in movie history) but also for the under-resourced police department as a whole; in a scene that verges on farce, they are unable to secure a crime scene before a tractor rolls over vital clues.
While there are several memorably taut set-pieces, such as the detectives chasing a suspect through a network of narrow alleys at night, or being caught up in a savage bar brawl, the film is not interested in building tension so much as providing a tensile portrait of a milieu where brute force compensates for lack of competence and casual violence is tolerated or overlooked.
Memories of Murder’s influence can be felt in America and Europe; David Fincher’s best film Zodiac (2007), one feels, could not have been made without this film. Baran Bo Odar admitted it was a major influence on his 2010 debut The Silence, which transports the film’s clammy-handed, claustrophobic mood, of long-festering atrocities to Germany.
The film begins and ends in exactly the same location, a storm drain by a field, as an inquisitive child disrupts adult reflection on the gruesome crimes. This circular structure lends a sense of secluded hopelessness, of innocence about to be lost, and most importantly, of crimes that will never be solved.