Palm Pictures // 2003 // 132 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 12th, 2005
Based on the true story of South Korea's most notorious serial killer.
There is something inherently fascinating about seeing other countries absorb American cinema, like the glory days of gritty 1970s cop cinema, ruminate on it for a few decades, and then feed it back to us in a thoroughly debasing fashion, the end result embarrassingly superior to the domestic garbage clogging up the multiplexes.
Leave it to the South Koreans to do just that. Put simply, Memories of Murder is spectacular; but more importantly, it is exactly the kind of raw and powerful cop drama that Hollywood only wishes it could still produce.
In 1986 South Korea, a series of brutal sexual murders erupt in a rural, small-town corner of Gyeonggi province, rattling the sleepy community to its core. The local police department, headed in part by brash, impulsive Park Doo-Man (Kang-ho Song, J.S.A.) and his aggressive partner, does its best to investigate the crimes, but is totally unprepared to handle such foul murders.
Police work in small-town South Korea is not an exact science to say the least, and Park is used to getting things done the old-fashioned way. Intimidation, bribery, corruption, forced confessions, framings, and a good solid beating or two have been more than sufficient to handle any problem that has arisen in the small community...up until this point. But a serial killer? South Korea had never dealt with a crime of this magnitude. As much as they hate to admit it, Park and his partner are at a loss for how to proceed.
Enter Detective Seo Tae-Yoon. An experienced detective from Seoul, he ventures out into the boondocks to assist in the murder investigation, and immediately clashes with Park, who views Seo as an outsider invading his territory. Seo is calm, calculated, and analytical, totally at odds with Park's acerbic nature. Park and his partner continue to thuggishly interrogate the local townsmen, attempting to pin the crime on the local town dunce, while Seo formulates a plan to outthink the serial killer using logic and intuitive deduction. Both detectives soon come to blows over how to handle the case, each totally convinced of their superiority over the other...until the killer strikes again, and again.
Despite their best collective efforts to stop him, the killer seems consistently a good step ahead of the police. With a sickening realization, it occurs to the detectives that this particular killer might be out of both their leagues...
Despite having only a few surface similarities, Memories of Murder has often been compared favorably to David Fincher's Se7en, and I can understand why. Both are fantastic examples of their collective genre: both have two detectives of different temperaments butting heads, strong performances from its cast, a taut and compelling screenplay, and an enigmatic serial killer who manages to consistently stay multiple steps ahead of the police. But most importantly, both feature a calculated subversion of expectations that maximizes the emotional response from the audience. Such films are more than just an unexpected ending or gimmick; they are calculated journeys from plot point to plot point, meticulously executed and expertly planned to take the viewer on a slow-moving roller-coaster of emotional turbulence and dramatic tension. They are not just good films. They elevate the genre to new levels.
Memories of Murder is a masterful film in part because it manages to throw viewers for a loop without them even realizing they are being dangled upside-down. It is cool and calculating, yet emotional and full of heart. It is well-acted, outright funny at times, and yet over-the top and shocking all at the same time. Each element manages to exist in total harmony with one another, never undercutting or interfering with one another. Most importantly, the unparalleled emotional resonance generated in Memories of Murder stems from the reality of the depicted events herein. Every event is totally within the realm of possibility carved out by the rules of the film. It never bends or breaks conventions, pulls cheap tricks on the audience, or steps outsides the boundaries it sets for itself. The realization that the events depicted in Memories of Muder are based on true events only further illustrates the film's intense realism.
Depicting the story of the country's first serial killer is not only a grisly tale in of itself, but also a testament to the frustration of a country coming into its own, gaining a foothold on the modern world with staggering speed, but lacking the social and cultural means to handle the stresses of modern living and unification between its people. Serial killers are problems for Americans to deal with, a thing of Hollywood films and television, not in South Korea. There is an element of frustration expressed in the film that resonates to the discontents of the South Koreans, of the traditional lifestyle fast eroding under the modern onslaught of progress and technology, but of a country not yet fully developed enough to reap the benefits. With advanced technologies like DNA testing not available to countries like South Korea in the 1980s, the police had literally had no clues on how to stop the killings. They knew exactly what to do, but were unable to do it. Combine this frustration with ongoing social protests and political riots, and the conflict between Park and Jo -- the rural life clashing with the big city -- and you have a film as much steeped in technological and social politics of South Korea as in serial killings and detective work.
Of course, that's just my take. Memories of Murder is a film that cumulates its many parts to create something exceptional, and these individual elements only represent small ingredients in the delicious pie. The film is far more complex than a simple serial killer drama, even though it does this exceptionally well. The acting is fantastic, the screenplay is involving and suspenseful, the direction is sharp and effective, and as for the two detectives? Memories of Murder is as much about the relationship between Park and Seo as it is about the killings themselves. Despite overwhelming personal and professional animosity between them, the detectives gain a grudging respect for one another during the course of the investigation and agree not so much to lay down arms as to temporarily put their differences on hold in order to solve the case first. Whether they are successful in either venture is a secret I will not spoil for you, for Memories of Murder is the kind of film that unfolds itself at its own deliberate pace. The less you know going in, the better off you will be.
Perhaps this is the reason I focus on these less-observed elements than the main thrust of the plot. As stated above, the less you know going in, the more satisfying an experience the film will be; so it is difficult to talk details without spoiling the wonderfully climactic tension the film so expertly builds. Just take my word for it: Memories of Murder is a shining example of its genre and one of the best overall films to emerge from South Korea as of late. The Koreans are a country to keep a cinematic eye on in the coming years, to say the least, as they seem to have developed a fantastic knack for making fantastic films that inherently appeal to North American audiences.
Kudos to Palm for picking up this film and releasing it in North America,
but that being said, I expected a bit more from this DVD. My biggest complaint
is the preferential treatment of the English dub over the original Korean
language track; the English coming in a Dolby Surround 5.1 presentation while
the Korean is delegated to a simple 2.0 Stereo track. Do not get me wrong; I am
glad Memories of Murder comes with an English dub, since this will no
doubt increase the appeal and marketability of the film to a wider audience. I
just don't like the idea of the native language track having an inferior
presentation to a dub job.
It is not a bad dub job either, by any standards. Okay, to my ears, none of the voice actors selected seems to bring any real flair or enthusiasm to the performances, and the voices sound similar enough to one another to make distinguishing dialogue a chore. But the biggest disadvantage of the dub job is that it lessens the "to the hilt" performance of Kang-ho Song as Park, who could be one of my new favorite actors ever. His smile makes me want to hug him and tremble for my life at exactly the same time, like some sort of big dangerous creepy teddy bear. Hearing his voice dubbed over-passionlessly by an English voice actor just robs the beauty of his performance away. But I dislike dubbed audio, so my opinion is fairly biased. But if you like dubs, then this one is definitely better than most I have heard.
The English surround track sounds full, rich and dynamic, with decent bass response and a subtle use of the rear channels for ambient noise. Unfortunately, the English stereo track sounds nowhere near as delectable, instead sounding weak, muted, and slightly on the tinny side. Ditto for the Korean stereo track, which sounds the worst of the bunch, but I would pick it over the other tracks if only for reasons of purity. All three tracks are totally serviceable, but the surround sound track sounds the best of the bunch by leaps and bounds.
The transfer is a very excellent one, with only occasional print damage the only main fault. Black levels are rich, colors are muted but hold their own against grain levels, and edges are sharp without degrading into jaggedness. A cleaner transfer would have been preferable, of course, but source material aside; this is the best DVD transfer I have seen yet from Palm. I have no complaints here.
Not terrible on the extra material side of things: 15 minutes of deleted sequences (Korean audio w/ subtitles only) and half an hour or so of cast & crew interviews and behind-the-scene montages (again, Korean audio and subtitles) are the majority of the features, both appearing to be lifted directly from a Korean DVD. Some previews and Web links round out the offering. Not bad, but I would have sacrificed the extra material for better Korean audio, myself.
Okay. This is not the kind of DVD review site that endlessly frets over release comparisons, especially from other world markets. We review North American DVDs, and we are darn proud of it. However...for such an excellent film, one feels the need to have a presentation that accurately reflects the inherent quality of the movie itself. (At least, I do.)
Palm has done a good thing releasing Memories of Murder, and their presentation is decent enough, but when compared to the alternative versions of the film that exist in print? It feels particularly lacking. For example, a Region 1 NTSC Korean version (published by CJ Entertainment) is currently in print featuring an anamorphic widescreen presentation, a 6.1 DTS-ES audio track as well as a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 (both Korean) with audio commentary, featurettes, the works. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which one is more desirable.
Take that recommendation with a grain of salt, of course. The Palm version
is pretty nice, and this lament does not take convenience and instant
gratification into account. After all, you can walk into any brick-and-mortar
store and buy the Palm version of Memories of Murder.
And really? You probably should.
What a fantastic film. It is a cliché to say I admit, but Memories of Murder is one of the finest films you will see all year. It is one of those rare films that achieve everything it sets out to do with perfect execution. Despite some slight, slight, ever-so-slight misgivings about the technical presentation, for anyone to pass up on this fantastic film would be a grievous mistake indeed.
Take it home, kiss it, caress it...love it. It's that good. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Korean)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast & Crew Interviews
* Deleted Scenes
* Web links
* Official Site