Great openings more often than not, presage great movies. Think of Apocalypse Now’s hallucinatory reverie, Manhattan’s authorial difficulties, or Touch of Evil’s three-minute tracking shot. It’s also the case with Memories of Murder, the South Korean police procedural by Bong Joon-Ho. On a hot sunny day, amidst a field of grassy gold, cop Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-Ho) rides in on the back of a tractor. In a drainage pipe, he finds the naked, bound corpse of a young woman. He tries to clear the crime scene of playing children, but one little boy mimics his every bark in hilarious fashion. The boy metaphorically mocks him the way this case will for the rest of the movie.
Based on real events, Memories of Murder takes place in 1986 rural South Korea. The country’s first democratic elections are on the horizon, and demonstrations and riots are taking its toll on the police force. The last thing this little town needs is a serial killer on the loose. What sets Memories of Murder apart from others of its ilk is the ordinariness of the tone along with surprising humor, though it is not a comedy.
Usually, serial-killer movies follow exceptionally skilled cops, even when they are relative amateurs like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, and they romanticize both cop and killer. Park is the opposite of Starling – not terribly bright or compassionate and more than willing to torture suspects to get a confession. He can’t control crowds at the crime scene, loses vital evidence, and has a partner who’s even more inept than he is. The movie gets a lot of laughs out of them, especially when Park comes up with a peculiar hypothesis regarding the killer’s pubic hair. Still, they are not Inspector Clouseau and Bong’s somber style keeps the tone sober.
Park finds a foil in the solemn Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyung), who comes from Seoul to help on the case. The country mouse and city mouse cops quickly find contempt for each other – Seo in Park’s clumsy tactics and Park in Seo’s perceived smug superiority. While the police engage in politics, writer-director Bong keeps tightening the noose as women die, suspects come and go, and pieces of evidence may or may not hinge on sheer coincidence.
As the film progresses, it becomes less about the actual identity of the serial killer and more about the nature of truth. Just what kind of proof is needed to be sure something is true? How much truth does one fashion for oneself with the need to believe? How reliable is intuition? Does torture work or does it only make those tortured say what the torturer wants to hear? As the investigation takes its toll on Park and Seo, their differences in tactics and their need to solve the case may not be so divergent after all.
Memories of Murder has a great opening and it also has a visceral, heartbreaking ending. The film carries viewers through the ups and downs of the exhaustive investigation for two hours and then places them in the shoes of the protagonists, asking for a slippery judgment call. It’s a decision that reveals as much about the viewer as it does about the characters. That also makes for a great movie.