Memories of Murder is one of my favorite movies, and in my mind, genuinely one of the best movies ever made. Bong Joon-Ho, the mind behind Snowpiercer and The Host, has a style and driving philosophy that synchs up perfectly with how I feel about film. Each of his movies has some genre that it tackles, be it a monster movie, a post-apocalyptic survival thriller, or in this case, a police procedural. At their core though, each of his movies is about people. These broad genres are used only as ways to explore the human psyche, to see what truly makes up a person. In Memories of Murder, we find him at his best, directing an absolutely riveting mystery following a series of murders that really took place in South Korea in the late 80s that even on the surface level is an incredible film. But at it's heart, it is a story of people, how they react to tragedy, to helplessness, to frustration, to failure, and most of all, to each other.
As the movie starts, we're led into the murder investigation almost immediately, as Bong chooses to establish his characters not through unnecessary looks into their home lives, but through how they exist around these murders. Detective Park (played by Song Kang-ho, perhaps South Korea's finest working actor) lives and works in this small town, and is used to doing things his way, dealing with relatively small crimes and beating confessions out of whoever he thinks looks guilty. As the murders begin, this is the approach he takes, latching onto any clue he can find and running with it, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. This part of Park is a bit difficult for me to unravel, as the film continues we see that he truly does care about his job, and he cares about solving these crimes, but the methods that he uses are usually counter-productive to these efforts. After the second murder, a Detective Seo from Seoul is called in to help out Park and the small town police department in order to solve these murders as quickly as possible. He is the antithesis of Park, who is driven by instinct and rushes things along, while Seo is analytical, thorough, and driven by logic. They serve as perfect foils for each other, clashing at every given opportunity as each attempts to use his own methodology to solve these crimes. This kind of setup is a familiar one, but as the murders progress, these clear distinctions between the two begin to fade. They both gain a desperation that they didn't have before, as the body count begins to increase the barriers and defenses that each have begin to break down. What begins as a rivalry between logic and instinct becomes a desperate, frantic cooperation between two men who at their core, don't want to see anyone else die. Every single death strips away a bit more of each man's pride, and robs him of his faith in humanity and himself.
Every time it rains, the killer kills again, which lends this inevitability and sense of impending doom to every scene. At one point Seo has something of a breakdown, knowing that the rain is coming and that they still have nothing but barely connected circumstantial evidence that is leading them to no particular person at all. They know there's a killer, they know when he's going to kill, they know the type of woman he looks for, but they still can't save anyone. On this and multiple levels, Memories of Murder is compared to Zodiac, David Fincher's 2007 thriller about a very similar topic. It is an excellent movie, which Bong Joon-Ho himself has said he loves, but where the two differ I believe is in the scale of time. Zodiac takes place over numerous years, and while there is a desperation to solving this crime, it is not at the same level as Memories of Murder. In Memories, the murders happen literally within weeks of each other, and as long as he is not caught, the killer will act again. Trying to solve a crime like this is trying enough already, especially in the late 80s with limited technology, but trying to solve a crime where you have almost nothing to go on, and you know for a fact that in a week there will be another body, that is something that no human being can shoulder the responsibility of for long. Detective Seo loses all composure towards the end, and violently attacks the man that he believes to be the killer, mirroring the tactics that detective Park has since thrown away in favor of being careful and thorough. Each man abandons the methods he believed to be valid, because he no longer has faith in himself. Women continue to die no matter how good they think they are, and because of this, they must find something else to do.
So much of this dynamic succeeds because of the way that the movie is shot. In the film, there are many long shots that incorporate every actor in the scene, which lets them work together and really helps the feeling of cooperation between them. Instead of constant single shots to show a conversation, Bong stages the actors so that all sides can be shown in frame at once, opting to move the actors instead of the camera when different people join or leave the scene, and he frequently does so in unique ways (someone being drop-kicked out of frame, for example). As I said, this really helps with the atmosphere that the film creates, making every conflict, every realization, every tragedy an experience shared by the entire cast. Instead of showing how every character feels individually, we see them all as it happens, reacting to things together. It's so wonderful to see a movie made with such incredible skill, with such perfect framing and composition. This is why I love movies, this is why film is such an exciting medium. The exact same moment can be shown to the audience in so many different ways, and the way that it is shown can matter almost more than what we're being shown. This movie would be so much worse without these shots in it. The story, acting, music, everything else could be amazing, but with generic or simply good-but-unremarkable framing, it wouldn't have the lasting impact that it does. Film is a visual medium above all, and Bong Joon-Ho is a visionary director who realizes and understands this with every single frame, every single shot, every single camera movement.
There are so many specific elements of this film that could be touched upon, all done so masterfully and with so much care, but to wrap things up, I think the final scene needs to be mentioned. The real killings that Memories is based on were never solved, and as such they were never solved in the film either. Inconclusive DNA evidence was the strongest lead that the detectives had, and after it failed them, they essentially had nothing to go on, and the killings stopped. The final scene of the movie finds us moving to modern times, 2003 to be exact, where detective Park has become a family man now. 15 years have passed, and he has a wife and two teenage children, and has quit his job as a detective to become a salesman for some kitchen product. Because of his job, he coincidentally finds himself going back to his hometown, and he decides to visit the scene of the first murder. While he is there reminiscing, a young girl walks by, and tells him that a man was also there recently, who said that "he did something here a long time ago". Park asks the girl what the man looked like, and she fails to describe him in any meaningful way. The shot then puts him center frame, and he turns his head to stare desperately into the lens at the audience (pictured above). This final moment has so much power to me, I get emotional just thinking about it. Years have gone by, over a decade has passed since the killings, and Park has moved on to a family, a new career, an entirely new life. But still he is haunted. His failure to find the killer is a part of him, his desperation and pain are still within him, as raw and as real as they have ever been. As I said above, Song Kang-ho is perhaps South Korea's finest actor, and it is in this moment that his incredible performance comes to a head. It is so difficult to convey the weight of this scene with a still image, the deep, personal pain reflected in Park's eyes and movements always stay with me. The entire emotional weight of the entire film, all of the failures and false hopes, the missed chances, the ruined evidence, the deaths, all of it is boiled down to this single, final shot, and held perfectly in the bottomless pain found in detective Park's eyes.