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Memories of Murder review – masterful tragicomedy of errors and helplessness

Bong Joon-ho's brilliant breakthrough - now re-released in UK cinemas - cleverly subverts the conventions of the serial killer film

Last year, Lee Choon-jae – already serving a life sentence for the murder of his sister-in-law – was announced as the perpetrator of the 1986-1991 Hwaseong serial murders. Although he confessed and DNA samples confirmed this, the killings remained unprosecuted due to the expired statute of limitations. The case was still unsolved when Bong Joon-ho loosely adapted the story in his 2003 film Memories of Murder, which has now been re-released in select UK cinemas.

Detectives in typical serial killer procedurals are often shrewd, level-headed and hyper-perceptive: think Morgan Freeman’s collected Somerset in Se7en or Jodie Foster’s steely Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. But we don’t have red lines pinned to walls connecting suspects or leads here: we have a tattered notebook, pritt-sticked photographs and a band of inept men entirely unequipped to deal with the task at hand. Bong Joon-ho plays on this scrabbling helplessness throughout Memories of Murder, drop-kicking us down a rabbit’s hole of sleuthing, violence, and despair.

It is 1986 in Hwaseong and a serial killer is wreaking havoc. The crime scenes are a mess: reporters get there before the forensics team, kids are playing games by the corpse, evidence is accidentally destroyed and there’s not a police cordon in sight. Lead detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) fumbles his way through proceedings, allowing his colleague and henchman Detective Cho (Kim Roi-ha) to torture suspects into submission. Enter the one person who could be a hero: Detective Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), an intrepid Seoul investigator who is painted as a meddling city boy, unaccustomed to the way things are done in Hwaseong. Soon he comes to symbolize the tension between not wanting scientific progress, but needing it to solve these knotty crimes. Ultimately, his own descent into the same base, violent instincts as his fellow detectives represents the treacherous psychological toll of failure that can gnaw away at even the savviest of sane minds.

Fog swirls, mud splatters, rain pours. Rain in film can often signify catharsis: no such luck for Memories of Murder, where the killer is revealed to prowl only under the patter of rainfall, which soon has a Pavlov’s Dog effect of skin-crawling terror. Combined with Tarō Iwashiro’s dread-inducing score, which functions both as a general background thrum of fear as well kick-starting numerous jumpscares, the film typifies Bong-ian tonal shifts, blending horror with elements of mystery and comedy.

Hwaseong itself is painted as preoccupied and struggling to keep up with its urbanization, contrasting smog-releasing power plants with vast pastoral landscapes. Making the bold choice to shoot speculative lead-ups to the murders, we adopt the POV of the killer and see him jump out of trees and rise out of the fields like a video game nightmare. Similar to how the house in Bong's Oscar-winning Parasite represents a series of class conflicts in both its sleek architecture and below-ground squalor, the threat in Memories of Murder is embedded into the setting: how the most edenic of locales hold unknown terror.

It is testament to Bong Joon-ho’s masterful filmmaking that even with a story as gripping and fleshed-out as this, the plot only serves to shine a light on a series of binary tussles: technology and a lack thereof, city and country, brainpower and brute force. The film implicitly explores a crucial time in South Korea’s history where modernization was a fast-paced rude awakening to rural villages, coinciding with the end of a military dictatorship and an approaching economic boom. When we meet Detective Park eight years after his failed investigation, he’s no longer the scruffily rural local detective we originally met – he’s now a kitchen appliance salesman, wearing fitted suits and berating his kids for spending too much time looking at screens. The film ultimately explores the notion of helplessness: to change, to criminality, to unthinkable cruelty.

“I may know nothing else,” Park says throughout, “but my eyes can read people.” And yet the film’s final arresting shot sees him scan the audience itself for clues and silently beg for help, overwhelmed by the needle-in-a-haystack mission that he simply doesn’t have the resources to solve. It feels like Bong Joon-ho’s desperate surrender – he himself spent a year meticulously researching the case, interviewing countless people and hoping to solve it. Memories of Murder isn’t the slick, schlocky, torture-porn type of true crime thriller so popular at the moment; it’s a devastatingly sad look at a country gasping to stay afloat.

Memories of Murder is now showing in select UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

Where to watch

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