Based on a true story that occurred in the South Korean city of Hwaseong from September 15, 1986 to April 3, 1991 in which 10 women were found gagged, raped & murdered in a similar fashion ranging from a 71-year old grandmother to a 13-year old schoolgirl plus the investigation of which involved interrogations of over 21,000 suspects & participation of 2 million police officers, Memories of Murder is an intelligently crafted mystery thriller about this serial murder case which remains unsolved to this very day & works as an ingeniously crafted example of its genre to rank amongst the finest films that Cinema of South Korea has enriched the world cinema with, so far.
Memories of Murder opens in October, 1986 when the dead body of a young woman is found in a ditch & is followed by another similar incident. Overseeing the case is local detective Park Doo-man under whom investigation procedures are ridiculous while innocent suspects are repeatedly tortured to confess involuntarily. Also assigned to work on the case is detective Seo Tae-yoon who came all the way from Seoul to assist the local team. After going through the details & finding a pattern in the killings, Tae-yoon is convinced that they are dealing with a serial killer but his investigative methods keeps clashing with the local detective’s procedures & the film as a whole is very much about these two highly contrasting characters trying to work together for the same objective.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, who is well-known for fusing elements of different genres into one tightly structured & greatly detailed story which is often pierced with dark humour, Memories of Murder is the second film in Joon-ho’s just over-a-decade old career but it also remains his finest work so far & certainly the most balanced. The screenplay puts greater emphasis on its characters, especially the two detectives & their frequent conflicts of opinions, but that also brings into play much more emotions than what’s usual in the mystery genre of cinema. Cinematography presents an arresting visual beauty that contrasts with the gruesome subject matter the film deals with plus the use of lighting, camera angles & colour balance is worth mentioning. Editing steadily paces the story & cleverly lines up the different segments in a single file, resulting in a smooth, self-explanatory narration. And the background score has its moments of brilliance as well.
Coming to the performances, the entire cast chips in with fine contributions but it’s the performances of two actors which ends up garnering the maximum credits. Song Kang-ho is ranked amongst Asian cinema’s finest actors today but it was his show-stealing work in this film that really introduced his acting prowess. Exploring the various dimensions of his character with effortless ease, Kang-ho stars as Park Doo-man; the local detective who relies more on his own silly assumptions than clues & only ends up beating confessions out of innocent suspects with the help of his faithful right-hand man who lets his boots do the talking. Also making his presence felt is Kim Sang-kyung in his breakthrough role as Seo Tae-yoon; the detective from Seoul who requested to be assigned on this case & who fortunately prefers a more cerebral approach compared to Detective Park’s eccentric presumptions. Sang-kyung delivers a very composed performance & impresses the most in the film’s final moments.
There aren’t many examples of mysteries in cinema that can sustain the viewer’s attention throughout its runtime after telling them upfront that the mystery isn’t going to be solved. And yet, this film manages to accomplish exactly that with its carefully elevated moments of tension & suspense. On an overall scale, Memories of Murder is a masterfully crafted cinema that is brilliantly directed, deftly written, effectively paced, wonderfully photographed, skilfully edited, nicely scored & superbly performed. It puts on screen the most infamous case in the modern history of South Korea with admirable honesty & manages to creep its viewers out more than once and despite its bleak tone, it never turns into a gloomy experience but an emotional roller-coaster ride for there are also moments of unmistakable hilarity coming from the idiosyncratic characters present here in abundance. One of the greatest mystery thrillers ever crafted & inarguably one of Asian cinema’s finest, Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus comes thoroughly recommended.