I was embarrassingly late to the party when it comes to the work of director Bong Joon-ho. All I felt after my first screening of The Host (Gwoemul) (2006) was a mix of confusion and disappointment which, despite consistent raves, kept me from checking out 2009's Mother as well. It was only after re-watching his earlier family drama monster epic that I finally clued on to his unique, refreshing style of storytelling - a style that was already quite evident in his breakthrough film Memories of Murder. Perhaps slightly more traditional - and based on an actual incident - the film is no less flush with the director's dark and quirky sense of humor.
Memories of Murder focuses on the investigation of a series of true-life killings which took place in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province in South Korea between 1986 and 1991. The plot at first focuses on the bumbling, somewhat dim Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) along with the unhinged and violent Detective Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roe-ha) who find themselves quickly overwhelmed by brutality of the killings, along with the lack of any tangible evidence (not helped by their incompetent crime scene security and willingness to torture to attain confessions). They are joined by a detective from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung), who finds himself immediately at odds with the pair's methods, but slowly gains their grudging respect as he uncovers further victims and connections between the killings.
Initially, much of Memories of Murder reminded me of David Fincher's Zodiac, with its stylish focus on detective work and serial killings, but it wasn't long before the moments of bright (and bizarre) humor showed this to be a different animal altogether. Bong Joon-ho's willingness to improvise dialogue (and action scenes!) creates a freshness and energy that could easily have backfired under such weighty material, but actually serves to buoy the sometimes slow pacing. There are only a few moments of action in the film - usually just brief fights or chases - but they feel so unhinged and filled with the capability for violence that they are absolutely exhilarating.
Much credit must be given to the performances - particularly Song Kang-ho, who has continued to be a huge part of the rapid ascent of Korean film-making over the last decade. His role could easily have been totally unsympathetic, particularly in his willingness to beat and torture innocents, and his complacency and general incompetence regarding his police-work, but the performance is filled with a nuance and charisma that makes his eventual minor transformation totally believable. Kim Sang-kyung's role as the slick, troubled big-city cop is a bit more traditional, but grounds the goofiness of the other characters, and he shows moments of great intensity at the film's climax.
I've repeatedly mentioned the humor, but part of Bong Joon-ho's skill is to deftly keep moments of levity from overwhelming what is a brutal and ultimately distressing look at the way violence transforms people. Partially adapting the story from a 1996 play by Kim Kwang-rim, the director obviously knew better than to shoehorn in stylistic flourishes (which is the major flaw in Zodiac) and instead makes the progression of the case seem natural and fluid, despite the conclusion being common knowledge to anyone familiar with the case. The period detail is minor, but a few moments - the slightly retarded Baek Kwang-ho cheating in a video game arcade, the detectives watching the TV show "Investigation Squad", the persistent air-raid drills - help build vital texture and detail to the small-town environment.
Filled with memorable performances and great moments - the three detectives staking out an outdoor masturbator who likes to wear women's panties certainly fits the bill - the film does start to slow a bit over its over two hour run-time, and some of the connections made by Kim Sang-kyung's Detective Seo Tae-Yoon seem a little dubious (perhaps a necessary summary of what amounts to months of detective work), but these are minor complaints in what is a massive accomplishment. Memories of Murder marked the true arrival of a vital piece of what has become one of the most exciting and original film movements in recent memory.