A Better Procedural: Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

The police procedural, popularized in television shows like CSI, is full of reliable clues that point towards nefarious criminals. Agents follow a trail of hair, semen, and blood samples; they consult witnesses and study evidence. There’s usually a twist, but the criminal is caught. Most audiences can’t live with a fictional criminal still on the loose. It’s unsettling. We have enough of that in the real world. TV and movies, with this tried and true formula, have a way of restoring our faith in justice. Crimes are committed, clues are found, perpetrators are brought to trial, and our sense or right and wrong is confirmed.

Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder pulls this rug out from under us. This film isn’t concerned with the investigation as much as it is the investigators. The set-up is almost too classic: there’s been a rash of rape/murders in a rural Korean town. The local police, who have a reputation for torturing confessions out of their victims, have a young mentally retarded man in their custody. His story is thin, but they know he’s easy to bully. Because the local authorities haven’t been able to pin the crimes on anyone a hot-shot detective from Seoul comes into town. The big city cop takes a no-nonsense approach to his craft, using level-headed logic and detailed methodology. The big city cop and the locals clash, naturally. We’ve seen this (or some variation) before in a thousand films and a thousand TV shows. It’s so familiar that it has the quality of myth to it. Bong plays with that myth for the length of the film.

The investigation is a series of starts and stops, and hands play an important role in each turn. When they think they have a confession in the bag, the big city cop notices that the retarded man’s hands are webbed, rendering them incapable of tying the complex knots found on the victims. It’s a small detail that the locals either didn’t notice or refused to notice; they were too drunk with the possibility of catching someone. When they catch a man at the scene of the crime, masturbating to a set of female undergarments, they think they have the answer…until they notice that his hands are calloused from his work, a direct contradiction to the testimony of the lone surviving victim, who claimed that her attacker had the soft hands of a woman. But when they finally do have man who fits the profile – intelligent with soft hands – they only get far enough to find that the semen found at one of the crime scenes doesn’t match their what was found at the crime scenes. The whole process becomes an exercise in frustration, both for the local authorities and for the Seoul cop.

Thematically, Memories of Murder shares a lot of ground with David Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s about the elusiveness of truth, and how that elusiveness can change the people seeking truth. Both films are based on real occurrences. There are some major differences though. The elusiveness of the Zodiac killer was a direct result of the circumstances that surrounded his actions and the intelligence with which they were taken. He presented himself, both real and false, in many different ways. The Zodiac wanted to be found – at least that’s how he acted. He could hide behind the big city buzz that surrounded him, and the uneven terrain of an analogue world not yet equipped with DNA sampling. The people chasing him were more than capable, but it just took too long;  the Zodiac eventually hid behind time. The murderer in Bong’s film also has some circumstances on his side, but the real problem with this investigation isn’t with the circumstances; it’s with the investigators themselves. They are sloppy, unethical, and often late to the game. They spend too much time on circumstantial evidence, most of which leads to dead ends. Their frustration and anger get the best of them, obscuring facts and conjuring up ones that don’t exist. When the hunter is preoccupied, the prey can get away.

BIG SPOILER AHEAD!

It’s not until a coda at the end of the film that Memories of Murder rises to the level of something truly special. Up until that point it plays out like an above average police procedural; the characters are have charisma and the yarn is entertaining, but it’s not something you’d need to rush out and see.  Years after the initial investigation, we are with the local detective, who has quit the force for other work. On one sunny afternoon, he’s incidentally driving by one of the crime scenes. He gets out to take a look and remember. A young girl passes by and tells him that another man had been staring at the exact same spot a week ago. Did she get a good look at his face? Yes. What did he look like? Ordinary. Was the killer there? Was it one of the other detectives? Was it just a passerby looking in the same spot through coincidence? We see in the face of the detective that he would like very much to know the answer to these questions. He’d still like to know who the culprit is.

BIG SPOILER BEHIND.

Through this ending, Memories of Murder approaches the existential thriller territory of Zodiac. It recognizes that there is something more at stake than just finding a killer. It is about personal knowledge, the ability to do one’s job, and the satisfaction of knowing the truth. In both Memories of Murderand Zodiac, the truth always seems just beyond our grasp. We can see the clues and read the information, but we aren’t quite able to get at it. We can’t know for sure, and it haunts us. The process of searching can change us, just as it does all the characters in both movies. Seeing Memories of Murder again, through the lens of it’s ending, creates an entirely different experience.

This is Bong’s finest film. It lacks the pyrotechnics found inBarking Dogs Never Bite. Instead, it latches on to a gripping story and uses formal simplicity to focus on presenting the audience with information. It doesn’t reach the intellectual complexity ofZodiac, but it is a force to be reckoned with.

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