Criterion Corner: Memories of Murder (#1073)

I can’t remember which of the two films I watched first: Memories of Murder (2003) by Bong Joon-ho or David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The two films share a lot of similarities. Both are about serial murders that actually happened: the series of killings Bong’s film is about took place between 1986 and 1991, while Fincher’s film is focused on the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer, who was active in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both are more interested in the investigation than in the killer, and in the individuals conducting the investigation (the protagonists of Bong’s film are the three police officers hunting for a rapist and murderer of women, while Fincher splits the difference between the San Francisco detectives, the journalist Paul Avery and the cartoonist Robert Graysmith). And, importantly, both films present the audience with very likely suspects to then withhold from us a confirmation that it is really this man, or that guy, who committed these murders. Much like the protagonists, we are left with a sense of frustration and unease.

This isn’t how crime thrillers are supposed to work. If we don’t know whodunnit at the end, what was the point?

And that, exactly, is the point.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. If you’ve yet to see the film, don’t read this post but go and watch Memories of Murder. Without wanting to put down my own posts: the film is much, much better.

While the parallels between Memories of Murder and Zodiac are evident, the two films still have a different feel for the most part, a different vibe. Zodiac is heavily inspired by New Hollywood and the films of the 1970s (right down to the Paramount logo), it is arguably indebted to directors such as Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet and Peter Yates. Memories of Murder, on the other hand… well, when I first saw it, the film felt utterly unique to me, and I would still find it difficult to compare Bong’s work in it to anyone else – other than perhaps Park Chan-Wook. It’s not a direct comparison, but both Bong and Park have made films that in terms of tone are highly idiosyncratic and that, to me at least, felt very different from most of the American and European fare I was (and still am) most used to.

While Bong’s films are generally less violent, and less cartoonishly so than some of Park’s, he too uses violence in combination with humour and tension in ways that I find unusual in Western cinema. There is a goofiness to his films that you may find in action comedies, especially those of a particularly black humour, but then you’d usually expect those films to clearly signpost that they are comedies. With Bong, it’s not that easy: in Memories of Murder, we get many scenes of police brutality that have that goofy quality, as in particular Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho, something of a Bong regular) and his partner Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) are, to put it plainly, idiots. They are used to beating confessions out of their suspects, and conversely, it seems that their suspects are used to having confessions beaten out of them. There is a silly, almost slapstick quality to the violence that at first seems entirely inappropriate. But then Bong plays the killings and their aftermath entirely straight and discreetly, without downplaying their horror – highlighting that it is the old-school police shenanigans of Park and Cho that are inappropriate. They are simply incapable of addressing crimes such as these.

Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a young detective from Seoul who volunteers to help, is clearly the more capable. He pokes holes in the confessions his foolish colleagues get from the easy targets they give their usual treatment. And Kwon Kwi-ok (Go Seo-hee), the sole female officer involved in the case, points out a major clue while the men squabble over their methods. Progress is made, initially in spite of Park and Cho, but later even Park comes to realise, albeit only slowly, that his approach to solving crime is woefully inadequate. And yet, even with Seo’s methods and Kwon’s deductions, the murderer remains tantalisingly out of reach – while Park and Seo especially become more and more obsessed with the investigation. Their lives are increasingly defined by hunting the killer, and by little else.

This is where another parallel with Zodiac can be found, though Bong’s film came earlier and, if anything, is reflected in Fincher’s thriller: the film presents us with a suspect that fits much of the evidence. He is found through actual, methodical police work. And yet, when his DNA is sent to the United States (as Korea lacks the technology at the time to analyse genetic evidence), the results that return are inconclusive… and this is where Cho breaks. He knows this is the killer, even if he cannot prove it – much like Park with his frequent assertion that he just needs to establish eye contact with a suspect and he’ll know. And he is just as wrong as Park was. Sometimes you can do everything right, you can read all the clues correctly… and yet there is no answer. There is just a hole at the centre of the case, a fuzzy outline that becomes more fuzzy the more you try to focus.

Verdict: Memories of Murder is a crime thriller. It looks like a whodunnit, though not a classical one. But Park and Seo don’t get their man, and neither do we. Was their suspect the murderer? Was it someone else they investigated? Perhaps the killer walked past them at some point and they never knew it – nor did we. This is not how thrillers are supposed to work. Even if they end on an ambiguous note, we’re supposed to have an idea. There’s tension to be had from uncertainty – but what Memories of Murder gives us is something else altogether. It frustrates us. Not all puzzles are solvable. Murder isn’t a mathematical equation. What we get is memories of murder, but not memories of a murderer. In the end, the story Bong’s film tells is like that of Zodiac, or even Alan Moore’s appendix to his graphic novel From Hell (about Jack the Ripper and his murders; incidentally, From Hell was one of Bong’s inspirations when making Memories of Murder). It is, like Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge, something of a requiem for the whodunnit, one noting that the solvable crime is often a comforting fiction. We fall into the rabbit hole of a murder, expecting to find a killer down there, complete with a handy murder weapon, motive, opportunity. Instead, with stories like this one, masterfully told by Bong and his team, what we find down there is ourselves, trying to establish eye contact in order to figure out: Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?

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