Cinematic Releases: Memories of Murder (2003) - Reviewed

Around 2003, roughly the time of Bong Joon-ho’s second feature film as a writer-director, the story’s inspiration consisting of the Hwaseong serial murders which lasted between 1986 and 1991 remained unsolved.  Often compared to the still unsolved Zodiac murder cases, Memories of Murder sought to make some sense of the crimes as well as provide a testament to those who tried to bring the killer to justice.  Circa 2019, Joon-ho returned to film in a big way with his Cannes Film Festival and Academy Awards favorite Parasite, renewing public interest in his preexisting works.  But that’s not all that happened. 
Some thirty years later around the time Joon-ho’s latest film was enjoying critical and commercial success, a certain Lee Choon-jae was identified as none other than the killer behind the infamous Hwaseong murders.  Confessing to fourteen murders and nine rapes connected to the Hwaseong murders, the new development in what is inarguably the worst case of serial murder in South Korean history couldn’t help but generate that much more attention for Joon-ho’s still scathing and permanently relevant second feature film.

Briefly in limited theatrical re-release in a new 4K restored transfer which recently aired on digital as well as an upcoming new Criterion Collection blu-ray, Memories of Murder might be among the first South Korean serial killer thrillers to be based on a real subject.  Co-written by Shim Sung-bo based on Kim Kwang-rim’s 1996 stage play of the subject, the film stars legendary actor Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; Parasite) and Kim Sang-kyung as Detectives Park and Seo who use any means necessary including but not limited to beating up suspects to try and solve the crimes. 
Much like Joon-ho’s The Host and Parasite, the film presents a sneaky interchangeable mixture of comedy and horror with a certain degree of mystery running throughout.  Much of the film is carried on the shoulders of Song Kang-ho who brings a certain degree of charm to the central character while also making him a flawed and desperate figure.  Playing on the age differences between Kang-ho and Sang-kyung as the younger yet more experienced detective, the film manages to involve you in their uphill battle as well as capture in a bottle the sense of hysteria running through South Korea with a serial killer on the loose. 
For a second feature, the film looks splendid thanks to Hyung Koo-kim who would later lens Joon-ho’s The Host.  The film makes fantastic visual use of the locations consisting of oceanic open green fields stretching as far as the eye can see.  Sound design is also key to creating suspense particularly in sequences where you can only hear the bristling of leaves in the wind coupled with an occasional stick breaking, letting you know the killer may be afoot.  Despite being a South Korean production, the film employed the use of Japanese film composer Taro Iwashiro who creates a moody, somber orchestral soundtrack with an overarching sense of doom. 

Considered by many to be one of the greatest crime thrillers ever made with a sense of urgency, fear and defeat, the film precludes works like David Fincher’s 2007 drama Zodiac which also dove headfirst into a real life yet-to-be-solved serial killer saga.  Seen now after the big Parasite wins as well as the real killer finally being caught after all these years, Memories of Murder couldn’t be more chilling in form if it tried.  Though released in 2003, the film achieves a timelessness for being about the struggle to solve a then-unsolvable crime and winds up probing the headspaces of those trying to bring the killer to justice in the first place.  One of the most important mainstream re-releases of a South Korean classic of this year.

--Andrew Kotwicki