Great detective films, it seems, are a thing of the past. Even when modern crime-solving movies achieve greatness, they do so with old-fashioned settings, back before DNA testing and tracking could make a two-hour murder mystery feel like it was solved in real-time, perhaps even a bit slower. Without technology, good, honest skill was the only hope of solving a case. Memories of Murder, set in a poor South Korean province in 1986, shows the more realistic side of such setbacks: for every genius who could figure out the densest case with old-school research and work, the average cop was even more useless in the face of a serious case.
Like Zodiac, Memories of Murder is based on true events revolving around an unsolved serial killer case. But Bong’s film often plays out as dark farce, a display of police incompetence that cannot be smoothed out by advanced forensics and the help of trained technicians. Clichés abound in humorous ways, as instead of a system fighting against good, honest cops, it keeps a band of thuggish idiots in check. This is the one movie where you actually wish the chief would demand someone’s badge and gun.
But then, the sergeant himself is too stupid to call anyone else out on incompetence. When Park (Song Kang-ho), the arrogant but overwhelmed country detective, and Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), the qualified investigator sent in from Seoul, have a shoving match in a bar in front of him, the man just loudly, drunkenly vomits, takes another drink and acts as if nothing happened. At least until he slaps the both of them and threatens them never to fight again in his presence.
Even at the film’s funniest, it inverts cop clichés. From the moment Park arrives at the scene of the first murder to find the ant-covered body of a raped woman, we see that sometimes the rural cop really is a bumpkin out of his depth. Seo arrives in the Gyeonggi Province not as an inexperienced, bookwormy desk jockey but as the only person with any remote competence in the area. Park can brag all he wants about being able to read someone’s eyes (which even the chief knows is bullshit), but he soon proves that he just wants to move on while Seo does all the proper police work.
He’s got his job cut out for him. Already set back by the limitations of the time period, the police must also contend with poorly collected evidence and crime scenes that no one ever seems to respect; farmers drive tractors through areas without heeding the warning shouts, while children play near corpses and macabre onlookers gather, unconcerned about trampling evidence. Hell, the more they mess up, the likelier it is the killer will go free and give them something else to crowd around in a week.
Bong contrasts Seo’s dedication but limitations to the buffoonish arrogance of his rural colleagues, who refuse to acknowledge a serial killer may be on the loose when a second body turns up and look for scapegoats to close the case as quickly as possible. A retarded man, Kwang-ho, is brought in for questioning and promptly tortured into confessing, despite how obvious it is he couldn’t have committed the crime. Park manufactures evidence or fits the dubious clues collected to something of Kwang-ho’s. It’s a nightmare.
The comedy of the film is at once brad and so casually delivered as to be subtle. Park’s ineptness with a typewriter seems to reflect the bewildering throwback to an analog world, as if even the characters have no idea how to function without Macbooks and smartphones. The local cops force confessions out of anyone they nab, and they sound like exasperated acting coaches when suspects fudge their taped confessions—“You were doing well!” groans one detective when a line gets flubbed. Park et al. strive to get these admissions of guilt off the flimsiest evidence: a footprint obliterated by a tractor driving over it is used against one person, and Park waves away the ruined evidence by saying, “This part was smudged. Don’t worry about it.”
Later, the cops try to establish a possible pattern between the two bodies, and the local detectives fleetingly suggest that both women were pretty. Seo, on the other hand, finally stumbles upon something when he notes that both murders occurred in the rain and that both women were wearing red dresses. From that point, the movie matures into a genuinely suspenseful, adult thriller that ranks among the greatest detective films. Not that it loses its sardonic edge, mind you; later, cops find a man masturbating at a crime scene and beat him for a time, only to discover that the man can no longer get off on porn and finds the gruesome news stories so titillating they help his fantasies.
No one can handle wide, whirling tonal shifts like Bong Joon-ho, and he manages the moves from whodunit to gallows farce and horror by avoiding the pitfalls of the clichés he trudges up to prod and poke. Seo and Park never particularly come to some sort of understanding, nor does one sufficiently impress the other that lessons are learned about the virtues of different perspectives and approaches. The death toll simply mounts to the point that not even two embittered fools can bring themselves to keep fighting. A pivotal scene takes place at the autopsy of another dead woman with the telltale signs of the killer’s handiwork. Then, something new is discovered: as the clinician checks for evidence of rape, he finds nine pieces of peach stuffed into the woman’s vagina. The two detectives, still arguing this late in the film, finally break: Park turns meekly (Song’s childlike face is used to full effect here) to Seo and asks with fear, not confrontation, if he ever saw anything like this in the city. Pausing only long enough to collect a breath, Seo replies, “Never.”
The paranoia that seeps into this film captures the best of these murky whodunits: every man walking around the country roads might be the rapist-murderer, and the song a female officer realizes gets played on the radio becomes one of those frightening leitmotifs like the theme of Jaws or the whistled Grieg in Fritz Lang’s M. The media circus that descends on the province only exacerbates the restlessness and anger of the detectives as they fail to find anyone, and the already troublesome beatings and coercions become truly horrific. If Zodiac was about perseverance in the face of overwhelming limitations, Memories of Murder is the enraged scream of those who don’t have the luxury of quitting when the case goes cold.
Bong’s gift with tonal ranges tends to produce some dissonant shots, and Memories has its share of eye-catching oddities. The opening shots show Park examining the first body in a storm drain as a clueless brat crouches on the ground above the corpse annoying the detective by repeating every word and gesture. The look on Park’s face suggests he wants to do nothing more than show the kid the body and scar the little bastard for life. As the detectives search for a suspect one day, the Korean president rides through town in a motorcade as a riot breaks out in the province. But the detectives merely shove through the mobs and fire to collar their man, then drag him casually through the chaos to enact their own brutality. A woman heads out in the rain, pausing to change out of her red dress before doing so, and her walk is relaxed but swift. She begins whistling the tune played on the radio, stopping with a fright when she hears it echoed by another. The tension mounts and mounts until the woman flees in a panic, her shaking flashlight the only light as she runs to the scene’s jolting conclusion. A slow-motion sequence earlier in the film highlights the absurdity of the detectives’ framing of Kwang-ho and the media frenzy that descends upon the town: Kwang-ho forgets himself and shouts of his innocence to his devastated father, leading the cops to chase him down in a field and shut him up as reporters close in like a locust swarm. Bong even finds a hint of mourning in the proceedings, turning the thick boots we saw one detective use for evil when he viciously kicked Kwang-ho used as a haunting visual cue for the same man’s foot amputation over a case of tetanus.
The actors also get their moments to shine. Song is a delight as Park, capturing the well-intentioned but buffoonish actions that manifest as distrust and brutality. With leads on the rapist-murderer nonexistent, Park heads to a bathhouse, Song’s hilariously narrowed eyes looking suspiciously at every swinging dick in the place as if waiting for a penis to get up to no good. And when he finally displays skill at sussing out the crime-scene masturbator when the man hides in a quarry among workers, Park’s victory swig of water undercuts his first true display of competence. Kim is much more collected, not really playing the role of straight man but taking in the madness of provincial police work with icy disgust.
For all the leaps in mood, Memories of Murder follows a clear tonal progression, moving from mordant comedy to suspense to, finally, a sense of loss and regret. Seo thinks he let the killer get away, and he’s so distraught that he even messes with a subsequent crime scene to cover up a corpse for decency’s sake, leaving to find and beat the suspect he never had any proof committed the crimes. The last scene of the film mirrors the first, Park returning years later to that storm drain with a combination of wistful remembrance of a past career and a haunted inability to shake what he saw. He talks to a young person, who reveals the final, cruel twist of fate that suggests Park once more just missed his chance to get the man responsible for the rapes and murders, but Bong substitutes a fatalistic regret for the muted frustration that closes Zodiac. Bong is one of the great genre filmmakers of modern times, and this is his finest, most complex work.