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'Memories of Murder': The Greatest Crime Thriller of Our Generation

There is not really a crime thriller quite like “Memories of Murder,” directed by Bong Joon Ho. Many crime dramas exploring serial killers are more interested in how the philosophy of the killers and how the main characters react to the bleak reality they live in, often changed or traumatized by the events that take place in the story. “Memories of Murder” takes this one step further and explores how the actions of the characters reflect the incompetence of the police and how justice is futile.

The film is loosely based on the Hwaesong serial murders in South Korea, which took place between 1986 and 1991. The killer was only caught in 2019, and by that time, he was already in prison for the murder of his sister-in-law. That detail adds an extra layer to the movie’s bleak portrayal of justice, which culminates in the desperate police search for the serial killer resulting in a dead-end.

In the beginning, the hopelessness of the situation is captured in several darkly comedic bits. The main detective, Park Doo-man, is a hopelessly outmatched local detective who doesn’t know how to handle the string of serial murders. His crime scenes are routinely tainted by the media, random tractor drivers who don’t know it’s a crime scene, or morbidly curious children trying to get a look at the dead body. His instinct is to look at someone and tell just by looking at them if they’re a killer or not; this leads to him picking up suspects who are innocent and beating confessions out of them. His bias is especially clear against people with mental disabilities.

In contrast, Detective Seo Tae-yoon is an intelligent detective from Seoul with a university degree and American training. He comes to help the violent crimes division, exploring every lead possible, from the mental conditions of suspects to the strength and texture of their hands. In the first half of the movie, Seo is typically shown in the background of the ensemble cast, poring through documents while Park and the other characters brutally beat the suspects. At one point, he even says “documents don’t lie.” His methods also involve befriending people and gaining their trust and rapport to get evidence from them, including a young school girl privy to rumors about the serial killer.

The framing of shots in the film is key in its storytelling. In one brilliant long take, the two detectives argue and get into a physical fight but then are broken apart by the chief, who sat perfectly between them at the back of the table. The long shots, with an emphasis on foreground and background elements, are a staple of this film, simultaneously playing with the framing for dramatic tension as well as laughs.

Eventually, Park’s methods bring a lot of heat on the police, who are protested against for their use of excessive force and unjust imprisonment of suspects. Seo’s methods help to exonerate these innocent suspects. The clues he acquires end up paying off when they finally nab a definite suspect, Park Hyeon-gyu. Detective Park is forced to accept that his biased method of policing has done more harm than good, and learns to look at things more analytically. It’s such a great character change that also shifts the tone of the movie from satirical to a much darker tone.

Seo is convinced that his evidence is rock solid, but they can’t confirm Hyeon-gyu as the killer until a DNA test of semen samples returns from America. But tragedy strikes when another girl is murdered during the waiting period. Seo goes to the crime scene and finds that it’s the young girl he befriended during his investigation. Enraged that he was unable to save her, he goes to Hyeon-gyu and drags him to a set of train tracks to beat a confession out of him. Detective Park stops him when he arrives with the DNA test, which exonerated Hyeon-gyu. But Seo no longer needs the document, believing that it’s lying — his evidence was rock solid. Park takes a look at the killer, and for the first time, he admits that he can’t tell if Hyeon-gyu is even the killer or not and lets him go. Seo fires at Hyeon-gyu, and Park is forced to stop him. Even with their more analytical forms of detective work, there was still no justice, and they were unable to get the killer; this leaves them both defeated and hopeless. In trying to bring about more order, all the police did was bring about more disorder.

Years later, Park happens to pass by the same place where the first murder happened. He runs into a young girl who says she saw another man there reminiscing about something he did there a long time ago. Park asks what he looked like, and she responds by saying “kind of plain.” The film ends with Park looking into the camera, trying to spot the killer watching the film. Even knowing that the killer was caught 16 years after the film came out, it’s one of the most chilling closing shots put on screen. It reminds you that there are people out there who are plain and ordinary that are capable of horrific things but are never caught, while innocent people caught up in sloppy investigations are put in prison.