Memories of Murder Review

Memories of Murder is based on a real investigation into the murder of ten women in the provincial town of Hwaseong in Korea between 1986 and 1991, where each of the victims were bound, raped and killed in an increasingly gruesome manner. The events based around the investigation were already the subject of a play, but Barking Dogs Never Bite director, Bong Joon-Ho interviewed principal characters, examined the relevant documents and developed his own version of the unsolved crimes, creating an horrific suspense thriller that is set against the turbulent political situation of Korea in the 1980’s.

When the body of a girl is found in a ditch near a small provincial Korean village, it soon becomes apparent that this is only one in a series of rapes and killings of young women and that such a case is beyond the capabilities of Inspector Park (Song Kang-Ho), the local policeman heading the investigation. Interrogating and torturing suspects and beating confessions out of them gets the detectives no closer to the murderer, vital clues are lost in botched handling of the crime scene and a reconstruction of one of the crimes for the press turns into something of a fiasco. Inspector Suh (Kim Sang-Kyung) has been sent from the capital Seoul to assist in the investigation and points out a common link between each of the killings, a link that leads him to believe that there will be further murders. The next time it rains, there will be another victim and the police know they are powerless to prevent the killer from striking again.

In most respects, Memories of Murder is a standard noir-ish crime thriller, meticulously detailing the murders and their investigation, building an effective sense of suspense and increasing horror at the spiralling sequence of events that the police have grasped the full horror of, but are nonetheless too inexperienced and ill-equipped to confront. But there are a number of other elements that give the film a greater force and resonance beyond the genre trappings. Although there are common elements to each of the crimes, the killer isn’t working to standard methods that can be detected by regular police crime manuals. At a loss and under pressure to find the killer before he strikes again, the local police resort to more unorthodox methods, making use of fortune-tellers and carrying out bizarre rituals around the crime scene. The more deductive reasoning of Inspector Suh yields more promising leads and suspects, but fails to get the evidence necessary to make a conviction. The film effectively balances this swinging between black humour and suspense, creating a few heart-stopping moments of sustained tension, the impact heightened by sudden lurches in the soundtrack. The fact that the story is true and the crimes remain unsolved only creates a much more powerful and darker sense of horror and gives the killings an overwhelming sense of inevitability, underlining the powerlessness of the police force to cope with this unstoppable, malevolent force. The character arc of Inspector Suh mirrors the response of the viewer to the situation – initially being physically assaulted by the horror of what has happened, disbelieving the shambolic manner in which the investigation is being conducted, leading to increasing horror, frustration and ultimately anger and a grim determination to know who the killer is and stop them at any cost.

The sense of the turbulent political events occurring in Korea during this period is also effectively handled and presented as a subtext to the film, the sense of the period captured in the civil defence drills, gas attack practices, blackouts and demonstrations. This all has an indirect impact on the events – the redirection of police resources to deal with violent demonstrations, the ineffective brutality of the police force in their torture of innocent people – but it presents this deeper resonance without rising completely to the surface and becoming a social commentary aspect of the film. Certainly the recreation of details from this period will have more meaning to a Korean audience, but for the non-Korean viewer, the anarchic social situation only emphasises the film’s downbeat ending and the impossibility of achieving any sense of comprehension to what has happened.

Memories of Murder is released in the UK by Optimum as part of their Discoveries series of films introducing new world filmmaking talent and is released under their Optimum Asia banner. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.

For the most part the picture quality is adequate, but there appear to be one or two problems with the transfer on the check disc we received at DVD Times. Colours are reasonably good and well defined, but a little on the dull side. A duller palette is certainly intentional and has been noted in reviews of the Korean DVD, but the tone appears to be generally flatter here. Blacks are strong and deep, but not fully detailed. There are no marks or grain visible. The image doesn’t always flow smoothly and there is some noticeable flicker of artefacts and movement blur, particularly in camera pans. In normal playback these problems are scarcely noticeable for the most part of the film. There is some mild edge-enhancement and some minor telecine jumps on edits between scenes, which might be more noticeable in their frequency. Despite this the image is certainly satisfactory, if not outstanding in any way. A rather more serious concern with the check disc I examined is pixilation around the middle portion of the film, the image breaking up on occasions for a fraction of a second. Again, it doesn’t distract too much, but it occurs 8 – 10 times and could be seen as a serious flaw. Optimum however appear to be aware of the faulty check discs and are working at correcting the problem.

We have now received a new corrected copy of the DVD from Optimum. While the pixilation problems have been fixed, the quality of the transfer remains largely the same as described above with macro blocking artefacts occasionally visible and a less than bright tone. The new disc however is 5 minutes longer than the previously issued DVD, confirming one of the comments received below that some scenes were missing from the film. These scenes occur at the 1:42:59 mark as a suspect climbs the steps leaving the interrogation room. In the older version of the disc, this cuts abruptly to Inspector Suh on a stake-out. The corrected disc restores missing scenes of the Chief Inspector on the phone, a meeting in the forensics lab, the team pushing a stalled car, the hospital scene where the amputation is carried out and a scene between Park and his girlfriend. The running time of the old release with these scenes missing is 2:05:08, the corrected edition runs to 2:10:22. If you have one of these faulty DVDs, it is recommended that you return it to the place of purchase for a corrected disc.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is clear and there are no problems, but it’s not exceptional and would have little of the effect of the DTS 6.1 ES track on the Korean release. There is good stereo separation for effects however and off-camera noise. The music score, which is used sparingly, also comes across well, having the desired effect of underlining shock moments effectively.

English subtitles are large, but not overly so. They are fixed and cannot be removed.

Deleted Scenes (14:26)
A number of deleted scenes are included – it’s difficult to specify how many as some of them are cut from between longer scenes. The scenes are presented in 1.85:1 letterbox and come with fixed subtitles or with a subtitled director’s commentary. Some of the deleted scenes are minor and removed for pacing, but others are significant, particularly the deleted ending before the epilogue. Its deletion is probably the right choice, but it couldn't have been an easy decision.

Real-life Memories of Murder (3:43)
In a brief interview, director Bong Joon-Ho discusses aspects of the Hwaseong serial murder case that the film is based on. This is illustrated with photographs from the real crime scenes.

Cast Interviews
Song Kang-Ho (5:48) talks about the difficulties in playing Inspector Park, and there are a number of outtakes and improvisations included here. Kim Roe-Ha (3:29), a theatre actor like many of the cast, talks about how his character, Inspector Jo, is most representative of the bad side of the police state in the 80’s. Kim Sang-Kyung (5:29) talks about his reaction to the script, his character’s background and the difficulty of playing in a film that is based on a real-life series of events.

CG Effects (5:10)
Most of the effects in the film are subtle. These are explained here and shown how they were achieved.

Trailer (2:35)
The trailer – with dramatic Korean intertitles – captures the tone of the film well – the suspense, the fear and the sense of humour.

Memories of Murder is further evidence of Korean filmmaking’s fresh and superior handling of genre material, already demonstrated effectively in My Sassy Girl (romantic comedy), Save The Green Planet (science-fiction), Oasis (social melodrama) and A Tale of Two Sisters (horror). As a crime thriller, Memories of Murder is meticulously paced, delicately balancing its comedy touches that heighten rather than detract from the essential elements of the crime investigation and murder suspense. By sticking closely to a true-life case, creating a strong sense of time and period and paying attention to characterisation and performances, the film has an edge and intensity that is hard to beat. Memories of Murder is compelling, suspenseful and powerful storytelling not just as a crime thriller but on a deeper human level. Optimum’s DVD release is adequate, but not exceptional in any area. The subtitled selection of extra features are interesting, but quality-wise this UK release falls far below the standard of the existing Korean DVD.

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