Four years before the Zodiac Killer befuddled California police in David Fincher’s Zodiac, co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho brought South Korea’s first serial killer to the screen in 2003 with Memories of Murder. Bong was building a storied career in his native Korea before the director was formally introduced in the United States with Snowpiercer (2013), Okja (2017), and Parasite (2019). Memories of Murder, only his second feature film, is an instant classic.
Park (long-time Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) is called to the scene where two young women have been raped and murdered. Park is out of his depth from start, as he fails to establish a crime scene, falsifies evidence, and trusts his intuition to spot the perpetrator. He hones in on a developmentally disabled boy, Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik), as the culprit. Park’s partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), is recruited to beat a confession out of Baek. As frustration mounts and the body count grows, Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) joins the investigation.
Few detective stories have communicated the exasperation of a fruitless lead as effortlessly as Memories of Murder. Bong simultaneously allows empathy for the detectives and resentment for their sheer incompetence. The police are understandably desperate to provide closure for the shell-shocked town and its grieving families. But as the investigative team brutalizes, intuits, and drinks its way from one dead-end to the next, the goodwill burns away like flame on a short fuse.
Media pressure to name a subject drives the detectives to increasingly outlandish methodologies. They eventually consult a psychic, revealing the utter futility of murder investigations before the widespread use of DNA evidence. Memories of Murder raises the question of how many innocent lives were upended on the back of a wrongful conviction. Bong and co-writer Shim Sung-bo elicit themes that are as relevant today as they were in 2003. As with Parasite, those themes apply seamlessly to the United States.
Bong’s trademarked tonal shifts are apparent in Memories of Murder. There are multiple wrestling-style dropkicks in the film’s two hour and 11-minute runtime. Although the film closest resembles Fincher’s Zodiac and Mindhunter, Bong verges into true horror more than once. Later in the film, Seo realizes that the killer only targets women wearing red on rainy nights. The detectives enlist their own police officer as bait, and the ensuing scenes are Silence of the Lambs-esque.
Memories of Murder is on the shortlist of great crime thrillers with the likes of Mulholland Drive, No Country for Old Men, and Se7en. Bong triumphantly juggles police brutality and community trauma in his sophomoric film and first true masterpiece.