Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder ★★★★½

Based on the story of South Korea’s first serial killer, Memories of Murder follows a trio of detectives who attempt to solve the case of the murders that have caused unrest in the town of Hwaseong in the 1980s.

The film is not so much about the case itself and the process of solving it as it is about the detectives’ obsession with catching the killer. The three of them are so dominated by the idea of their own failure that they resort to forcing the identity of the killer onto innocent men, as every clue they follow leads them into another dead end, and the search has to begin again.

Though it has its fair share of thrills and Bong Joon-ho’s brand of dark humor makes its presence known every once in a while, the film doesn’t take any pleasure in the investigation or the incompetence of the police. Hopelessness dominates throughout, while the idea of their failure hangs over the detectives’ heads, and the force that is supposed to counter the evil striking at random has its hands tied by the unprecedented nature of the case and a lack of resources.

As Memories of Murder takes in the futile attempts of the detectives, it finds the time to also look at the consequences. Hwaseong isn’t a mere setting, it’s a town inhabited by people, by the families of the victims, by the families of the arrested innocents. The film traces the town’s yellow fields and narrow streets, showing the trail of chaos and despair that the murderer leaves behind with every killing. Unity disappears, as the people start turning on each other, and all that remains is a ghost that continues to haunt.

A harrowing and at times thrilling experience, Memories of Murder is the perfect ground for Bong Joon-ho to prove his mastery. It’s impossible not to see how the seeds planted here have flourished in Parasite, with the sporadic use of action and humor complementing a poignant story. Beyond that, though, the film is a haunting portrait of failure and an incisive look at the unorthodox methods that often take the place of actual solutions.

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