Memories of Murder
South Korea makes terrific horror movies, and I was in the mood for one and rented this with the misunderstanding that it was a serial killer thriller. Guillermo del Toro introduces the film, which I discovered is considered the Korean classic movie, and it’s based on an unfortunately true story of the country’s “first” serial killer. Set in the fall of 1986, it’s the story of Hwaseong City murders of ten young women in six years. It has some gruesome scenes, but I didn’t consider it a thriller.
The first victim is discovered by a boy catching grasshoppers in a rice field. The detective shows up and because there are apparently no flashlights in this pre cell phone age, he uses a bit of broken glass to illuminate the scene inside a drainage tunnel. What the police do next is criminal. Not only do they find a mentally challenged youth to beat a confession out of, they then drag him to the field and force him to reenact the crime for a wave of journalists who also help the police trample the murder scene to a pulp. Even for this long time fan of tales of extreme police ineptitude, this was a lot to take in during the first ten minutes.
Most movies about serial killers are either all about the killer or the police looking for him. Memories has a few harrowing scenes involving victims so they aren’t completely forgotten, but the weight of the movie is about the indescribably bad police work. Park and Cho are the detective partners given the case until it becomes obvious they need help and the suave and progressive big city detective Seo is brought in to take the lead. He must be smarter than the thugs in Hwaseong, he reads a book. Despite Memories rating a zero on the Bechtel Test, I liked how clearly director Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) portrays the smartest person in the room. The guys may have thought she was only there to get them coffee, but her work brings them closest to the killer.
The film is gorgeous, with a good gradient of light to dark and rich colors when needed. That balance is evident in the plot as well, between thuggery and detection, care for finding the killer and wanting only a confession, between negotiating a dark era of the county’s history and surviving the killer’s deadly cat and mouse game. The last two minutes of the film will stay with you for a long time, and you can dig deep on the internet on articles that discuss what I agree is one of the best ever in the history of cinema.
I’m very happy to have seen this classic movie, despite it being very difficult to watch in many places. There is a lot of violence. There is a lot of dangerous stupidity. There is a lot of heartache and misery. But there is also a glimpse of how things will improve from a dark time in a now bright country’s future, and a deep observation on the psyches of good and evil and how those two things can coexist in the same time and place. This movie comes highly recommended from me.
REALLY BIG SPOILER
Real life is more horrible than the movie. A man named Lee Chun-jae confessed later to what was actually fourteen murders instead of the ten the police were aware of, and expressed surprise he was never caught when a million police officers were looking for him because he never tried to hide. He’s serving a life sentence for a family murder but can’t be charged with the 14 others because – I’m having a hard time with this one – there is a statute of limitations for murder in Korea.
It’s too late to charg him, He has apologized to the people who were beaten and harassed while looking for him.
END REALLY BIG SPOILER
CFR: In Addition: Oh wow, thanks Mr. Murderer. I’m sure your apology makes everything alright. Why don’t you apologize to the women, you nasty piece of work.