Based upon the true case of Korea’s first serial killer who raped & killed 10 women between 1986 & 1991 & remains uncaught, Memories of Murder was Korea’s highest-grossing film of 2003, & recipient of virtually all the countries major film awards that year. It was indeed a deserving winner, being a remarkably assured film that blends drama & black comedy with finesse, a populist work of art that refuses to neglect one for the other.
The film is based loosely around a 1996 stage play about the murders called “Come To See Me”, & does not purport to be a historically accurate recreation of events. The time-span is reduced to a couple of years in order to maintain a dramatic tension, there are fewer victims, & the central characters are fictitious. It doesn’t however, go so far as to have the killer caught, & though there’s one highly likely suspect, it’s not really much of a spoiler to say that the film ends with no clear-cut solution as to who the killer was. Instead of looking at the killer & his motives, the film instead focuses primarily on the police investigation, which is led by local cop Park (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’s Song Kang-Ho) & the big city cop Seo (Kim Sang-Kyung) who is sent from Seoul to assist. Initially, Park’s driven approach contrasts with the more detached Seo, but as the investigation continues each becomes more like the other.
Part of what makes the film such a refreshing & hugely entertaining treat is the fact that the film is so utterly different to the Hollywood serial killer formula which has been wearing so thin of late. There’s no slick Seven-style cinematography (although the more naturalistic lighting by Kim Hyeong-Gyu is consistently impressive, with a unique look of its own), & no brilliant, driven cops working on the outside of the system. Instead, the focus is on a team of human beings who are simply desperate to stop the killer, but are utterly unequipped to the task, having never faced anything like this in the past. They are not helped by the intense media focus, & the inexperience of their colleagues – witness the blackly comic way the early crime scene gets inadvertently ruined. They make brilliant deductions about connections between the victims that turn out to be pure coincidence, & have to follow the most innocuous piece of gossip, as it’s the only lead they have. Their version of playing good cop/bad cop is to question suspects in a dingy basement, have Park’s partner perform flying drop kicks at the drop of hat, or hanging them upside down from the ceiling. It’s indicative of a startling tone, mixing intense drama, black comedy & genuinely shocking & unsettling moments with aplomb. Whilst the film doesn’t really count as being a horror as such, it does boast one image that is one of the most purely frightening moments in recent memory.
Writer-director Bong Joon-Ho is very open that a big influence on the film is Alan Moore’s “From Hell”, which also tells the story of an unsolved serial killer case, & which is concerned more about the times that produced the crimes rather than the killer himself. You don’t need to have a hugely in-depth knowledge of Korean history to be able to enjoy this captivating portrait of a dark time in the country’s recent past, even if it will deepen your appreciation of the films achievement & subtleties. This is surely a big part of the key to the films success in Korea, & its peculiarly unique locality will also mean that this is one import unlikely to suffer the indignity of a Hollywood makeover. “Memories of Murder” is one of the greatest pleasures of the year; brilliantly acted, utterly compelling & blessed with a uniquely individual atmosphere & tone. This is one hunt for the killer it’s well worth signing up for.
I’ve been watching the Korean NTSC DVD from CJ Entertainment, the box of which states it’s R1/3 – although I can’t confirm this encoding for definite. Disc 1 presents the film in a really good-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer, which is difficult to fault. Audio is in the form of Korean dts-es, which sounds damned fine, or Dolby surround-ex if you’re equipment can’t handle dts. Subtitles are in Korean or English.
I haven’t given a mark for extras, because I haven’t really looked at them, since none of them have English subs & it didn’t really seem fair to review them when I couldn’t understand them (OK, I was being lazy!).
Disc 1 boasts 2 audio commentary tracks, one of which features some people, & the other one features some people, who are presumably not the same people as the first track (although you never know!). Unfortunately their names are in Korean on the box, so I don’t know who they are. Still, subtitles aren’t provided for the commentaries, so even if I knew who they are I still wouldn’t have a clue what they’re talking about. All the other extras are loaded onto disc 2, & consist mainly of video interviews, although if you fish around you will find some behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes, still galleries, & trailers/TV spots. There are no English subs on this disc, although I don’t want to complain too much about that, since the disc wasn’t really intended for export, & the price I paid is more than worth it just for the film alone – particularly looking & sounding as good as this.