Memories of Murder is such a far cry from director Bong Junho's first film, the dark comedy, Barking Dogs Never Bite, that I was quite surprised by it when I first watched it. But, the film also left a strong lasting impression on me and I was pleased to be able to revisit the film on Blu Ray to get a more theater-like experience, which I was not able to have the first time I saw it. I think that the film not only has aged well, but gains more ground from repeated viewings.
A sort of procedural gone awry, the film deals with the real life events of Korea's first publicized serial killings in a rural part of the county. We follow the local violent crimes detectives, Bak Duman (Song Gangho) and his even more brutal partner, Jo Yonggu (Gim Roeha) as they and the police, under scrutiny of the press and the public, try to close the case by rounding up suspects and conducting a rather haphazard investigation. They are later joined by city detective, Seo Taeyun (Gim Sanggyeong), a methodical detective more interested in finding clues rather than beating confessions out of his suspects. As pressure mounts, the killer finds more victims and the police, who already have the enmity of the public due to their notoriety for use of torture and brutality, find themselves just a step behind the killer.
The first time I saw Memories of Murder, I watched it from the perspective of a crime procedural and the perspective of different methodologies and ideologies attempting to solve a crime (as represented by the local cops versus the city cop) and even then, it was pretty gripping, especially as I watched the transformation of both of the cops as the killer takes more victims. The story is pitch perfect as far as being a crime film goes, but the second time around, I noticed a lot more of the social commentary underlying the film. You see images of the times in Korea, under the military dictatorship, with air raid drills, violent protest demonstrations, and you see that the whole movie is also about how the government deals with the problems the society is facing at hand, the distrust of the people for its government, but also a little bit about how the people were, in part, at fault for their problems as well (this is crystallized in a late scene where a couple of students belligerently brawl with the police officers, resulting in the destruction of some key evidence, as well as in the final scene in the field). I think that layer adds to an already stellar story.
No doubt, all of this is helped by amazing production quality, considering the comparatively minuscule budget that the film had. In high definition, the picture is crisp and clear and the photographer's eye for use of colors (both faded and glowing) comes through clearly. Seeing more of the details of the actors faces, gives increased nuance to their great performances, especially with Song and how he uses his eyes (his character insists that he can see a criminal from just looking him in the eyes). I also found in my second viewing that the music and the sound effects actually worked together to create an interesting sound field, especially at a midpoint in the film where the air raid sirens go off and create a secondary instrument to the score, which swells while the cops work desperately to find more clues.
Memories of Murder was, and continues to be a shining example of dramatic crime procedurals, with complex characters that undergo development, a gripping and emotional story that manages to work at the character and plot level, but also at a larger look at the society of the times (and possibly a shot at the Korean society of the present) and has all the elements of a great production. A director can go their whole life without making a movie of this caliber, but Bong should be pleased to know that he has indeed made a masterpiece with Memories of Murder. 9/10.