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1 review, 9 user ratings

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Memories of Murder
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by Jay Seaver

"Can an unjust system dispense justice?"
5 stars

In 1986, the Republic of Korea was confronted with its first known serial killer. We find out during the opening narration of Memories of Murder that South Korea was at the time a military dictatorship, and for the next two hours we are given an object lesson in how a strong, authoritarian government cannot always stop a single, determined criminal.

The nature of the ROK's government at the time is an odd choice as the first piece of information the audience is given, as I imagine most Koreans wouldn't need to be told. I suppose that the younger generation who didn't remember it first hand could use the reminder, but it also serves to focus the viewer's attention on how that impacts the procedural elements of this movie. The principle weapon of law-enforcement in an authoritarian nation is intimidation, and while a climate of fear can deter potential criminals, one who has already gotten away with something is not so easily cowed. And then the cops are left with real police work, which they may not be used to.

As the movie starts, though, it seems that the police aren't up to the challenge just because they're small-town police. Park Du-man (Song Kang-ho) is furious as he arrives at a crime scene, as civilians are milling about, kids are running all over the place, uniformed officers slip down the side of a grade, and nobody has closed the street off to traffic, allowing a tractor to obliterate forensic evidence. Soon, the crime has attracted attention from Seoul, in the person of Seo Tae-yun (Kim Sang-kyung), who works for the Korean equivalent of the FBI. And though Park is initially set up as the professional one, it's soon clear that he prefers a much more intuitive approach ("I can tell by looking in someone's eyes") to Seo's more methodical way of investigation. And then there's the other member of the team, whose main investigative technique seems to be "beat a confession out of the suspect."

The procedural is a genre that doesn't always get the respect it deserves; by design, it tends to feature viewpoint characters (the investigating officers) who are not directly connected to the emotional center of the story (the whys and wherefores of the crime). With a case like this one, though, the police are confronting something outside their experience, which causes them to question their basic beliefs. While the story is about how a killer ran free and the police tried to find him, it's also about how the task of trying to find him wore them down. The transformations of Park and Seo are the heart of the movie, ultimately more central than finding out just who exactly the killer is.

Also important, of course, is the effort to provide justice within an unjust system. This runs the gamut from background details - like the morbid civil defense drills at a local high school - to things like not having enough officers to stage an effective dragnet because they're busy suppressing student protests. The interrogation techniques used are also not those generally associated with democratic nations.

Writer/director Bong Joon-ho is strong on both sides of the story - the procedural aspects are taut and suspenseful, despite the outcome of the investigation being public knowledge, while the character stories are well-drawn, convincing descents from confidence to despair. It's no wonder that the film was a sensation in its native land, leading to a public outcry for the case to be re-opened. As a crime drama, it's a remarkable effective piece of work, telling a good story, building interesting characters, and creating a sense of time and place.

Memories of Murder is one of those movies that can be said to rise above its genre, for those who find genre embarrassing. It's got something for even those who don't particularly like crime stories. But just as importantly, it doesn't rise so far above its genre as to leave those important trappings behind - it's a darn good procedural, first and foremost.

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originally posted: 03/03/05 16:22:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2004 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/18/20 Langano Good film, a little overrated. 4 stars
2/16/08 MP Bartley Gripping and atmospheric. Comparable to Zodiac. 4 stars
8/28/06 K.Sear If I'd known it was a true story before hand, it would have made the ending easier to take. 4 stars
6/09/06 William Goss Surprisingly compelling for a low-key police procedural. 4 stars
3/04/05 Phyllis Skoglund A learning process and realization "falling through the cracks" happens / justice systems. 4 stars
8/25/04 Marta Barbosa Profound film, brilliantly acted 5 stars
6/08/04 Gustavo Stunnign film from Korea, based in a chilling true story 5 stars
4/26/04 stenobabe wonderful complexity, atmospheric 4 stars
4/20/04 Vikram OH MY GOD!! Mallika is soooo sexy. great ass, great boobs. mmmmmm 5 stars
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  DVD: 20-Apr-2021



Directed by
  Bong Joon-ho

Written by
  Bong Joon-ho
  Shim Sung-bo

  Song Kang-ho
  Kim Nae-ha
  Park Hae-il
  Kim Roi-ha
  Song Jae-ho
  Byon Hui-bong

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