Memories of Murder Review
In 1986, South Korea was governed by a military dictatorship headed by President Chun Doo-hwan. In October of that year, the body of a woman was found in a field in Hwaseong, a small village in the Gyeonggi Province. She had been bound, raped, and choked to death with one of her own stockings. It was the first in a series of killings that continued until 1991. The crime remains unsolved.
The mystery surrounding South Korea's first serial killer inspired the successful stage play Come See Me a few years later in 1996, and given the potency of the material, a cinematic adaptation was almost inevitable. After interest from a number of different parties, the directorial duties were eventually assigned to Bong Joon-ho, who had debuted in the year 2000 with the well-regarded black comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite. Realising the gravity of the material, and partly inspired by Alan Moore's From Hell, a well-researched graphic novel about Jack The Ripper that inspired the film of the same name, Bong Joon-ho studied as much relevant material from the time as he could before beginning work on the screenplay for Memories Of Murder.
Perhaps learning a lesson from the numerous lacklustre films about Jack The Ripper, rather than asking who committed the murders, a question that can probably never be satisfactorily answered, Memories Of Murder instead addresses the potentially more interesting question of precisely why the crimes were never solved.
Taking this approach, the film inevitably focuses more on the detectives assigned to the case than on the murderer. Inspector Park Du-man (Song Kang-ho), a small-town detective used to solving crime with his fists rather than his brains, leads the initial investigation. Inspector Seo Tae-yun (Kim Sang-kyung), a detective from Seoul, volunteers to assist in the investigation and the combination instantly leads to conflict. Park, threatened by the newcomer's city background and education, reacts angrily to what he sees as interference from an outsider. Seo, dismissive of Park's primitive and sometimes morally reprehensible methods, ignores the efforts of his colleagues and conducts his own independent investigation. However, Park eventually realises the futility of his usual approach and reluctantly begins to pay more attention to the efforts of Inspector Seo, only to discover that the city detective is equally out of his depth, forced to use out-dated and unprepared police resources to hunt a killer who leaves no clues. As the murderer claims more victims, the horror and frustration take their emotional and professional toll and the pair are pushed to breaking point.
Bong Joon-ho directs the film with a skill and judgement that Barking Dogs Never Bite merely hinted at, carefully balancing a surprising level of humour with moments of high drama and suspense. Background details and references unobtrusively establish time and place, and the horrific nature of the murders is conveyed but not exploited.
Bong Joon-ho is not the only contributor to excel. Song Kang-ho, who gained a reputation as one of South Korea's finest actors after his roles in such films as Joint Security Area and Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, turns in possibly his finest performance as Inspector Park. Although given less screen time, Kim Sang-kyung, previously seen in The Turning Gate, is far from overshadowed by his more experienced colleague, and a great deal of the emotive power of the film's final act stems from the pair's passionate and entirely convincing performances. In fact, there is not a bad performance in the film, with many of the supporting players creating memorable characters despite the limitations of their respective parts.
The acting is matched with technical excellence on all fronts, from Kim Hyeong-gyu's sepia-toned cinematography to Taroh Iwashiro's moody score. The combination of talents all operating at their highest level produces a potent film of undeniable quality that functions as both an effective serial killer drama and a commentary on the damaging effects of a military dictatorship.
Despite being ignored by many film festivals, Memories Of Murder deservedly won three prizes at both the San Sebastián International Film Festival and South Korea's own Grand Bell awards.
The original release of Memories Of Murder was a limited edition box set that sold out almost immediately upon release. The standard edition contains the same two DVD discs but lacks the accessory items included with the box set. Both discs are encoded for Regions 1 and 3.
The otherwise excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is only marred by very occasional print flecks. There is a good level of detail, blacks are strong but not at the expense of shadow detail, and the autumn-hued cinematography is nicely presented.
Memories Of Murder is presented with a DTS 6.1 ES surround mix that easily matches the quality expected of a Western film. The sound is rich and defined, with appropriate use of the rears for the score, spot effects and ambient sound, most notably in the film's frequent rainy scenes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack is nearly a match for the DTS, but has slightly less warmth and focus.
The English subtitles by Darcy Parquet and Yeon Hyeon-sook are excellent, well-timed and with no grammatical errors.
The film disc features three different randomly-selected sets of easy-to-navigate animated menus, all of which feature a mixture of Korean and English text. The menus for the extras disc, like its content, are entirely in Korean.
As increasingly seems to be the case with Korean DVD releases, Memories Of Murder is packed with exhaustive bonus materials, though disappointingly, as usual, none include English subtitles.
The first disc in the set includes two full-length audio commentaries, the first featuring the director, cinematographer and production designer, and the second again including the director, but this time alongside cast members Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung and Park No-shik.
The rest of the special features are sensibly confined to the second disc, starting with a section containing five short featurettes covering different aspects of the filmmaking process. These range in length from two minutes to nearly eight minutes and all consist of on-location footage, on-set clips, and interviews with the director and crew.
The next section looks at nine characters from the film, with clips from the movie, comments from the director, and interviews with the relevant actors. These range in length from three to six minutes.
More interviews and on-set footage are presented in two further making-of segments running for seventeen and twelve minutes respectively.
Features about the set and production design, clothing and make-up, the film's invisible use of CG effects, and the original score come next, clocking in at eleven, twelve, five and fourteen minutes respectively.
The next section provides a break from all the interviews, instead consisting of fifty-six on-set photographs and a single on-set painting presented in four separate galleries, divided according to the photographer or artist.
Seven deleted scenes, totalling around fourteen minutes in duration, come next. These are available either with or without commentary. The scenes all serve to further develop characters or flesh out certain plot points but are otherwise inessential.
A section devoted to promotional material contains two theatrical trailers, a TV spot, publicity photo-shoot coverage, and footage from the press screening. The latter features a few faces that should be familiar to Korean cinema aficionados.
The last option on the disc gives access to a list of credits over a montage of on-location footage.
Finally, an Easter Egg gives access to a seven-minute featurette in which Bong Joon-ho discusses the research he made into the Hwaseong serial murders before embarking on the film.
Although the bonus materials provide a detailed look at all aspects of the filmmaking process, a documentary about the real-life killings would have been a welcome addition, and one that would have added further resonance to the film.
Limited Edition Extras
The initial release of Memories Of Murder included a book of black-and-white storyboards annotated in Korean, a set of four postcards, and a slice of film, housed alongside the double-amaray DVD case inside an antique-brown effect cardboard box.
Funny, gripping and ultimately moving, Memories Of Murder is an exceptional film about the emotional scars left on individuals and society by horrific events. Although those with an insight into South Korea's recent history will no doubt gain even more from the film, no knowledge of Asian history or cinema is required to appreciate the sheer quality of filmmaking and performances on display.
The CJ Entertainment's Korean DVD release features a quality of audio and video that are unlikely to be bettered by another release, along with a generous supply of sadly un-subtitled extras.