Every film inspired by a real unsolved crime leaves behind the same lingering question: Would any of then retain their full power if their respective real-world crimes were eventually solved? Would “Zodiac” still be such a haunting police sketch of pathological obsession in a world where viewers could Google the killer’s identity in less time than it takes Robert Graysmith to crack even the easiest cypher? Probably. Would an uncannily effective studio thriller like “The Mothman Prophecies” still be eerie enough to punch above its weight class if the Mothman turned out to be a bored accountant named Gary whose prank calls got a little out of hand? Probably not.
This question only applies to so many films, but none have asked it more directly — or answered it with more force — than Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder.” A loose but historically redolent evocation of the serial killings that plagued the rural South Korean city of Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991, Bong’s 2003 masterpiece defrosted his country’s most notorious cold case by looking back at it as a damning microcosm of life during autocracy, and as a symptom of the powerlessness that can seep into the general population of any country whose government only cares about preserving its own tenuous control of them. Unsupported by a futile national police force that devoted the majority of its manpower to suppressing the student rebellion that had risen up against Chun Doo-hwan’s oppressive regime, and kept in the dark (sometimes literally) because of despotic policies on both sides of the 38th Parallel, the kick-happy Keystone Kops driving the film’s tragicomic investigation naturally crash into a dead end.
The famous “present day” coda that Bong tacked onto the final reel catches up with lead detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) in 2003, and finds that the once-feral Columbo wannabe is now a family man who sells juicers not far from the haunted farmland where the fresh corpses of young women once mocked his ineffectiveness from the side of the road. In a golden-hued scene that echoes the film’s opening moments, Park looks into the small culvert where he found the first body all those years earlier, only for a curious little girl to mention that another man had been there some time before — she doesn’t say whether it was minutes or months ago — and reminisced about this unremarkable spot in the exact same way. The film ends with a fade out as Park breaks the fourth wall and stares into the lens as if looking for the culprit in the audience on the other side of the screen.
Now that we know a man named Lee Choon-jae confessed to all nine of the killings depicted in Bong’s movie (in addition to six others) in 2019, the dying seconds of “Memories of Murder” can’t help but hit different. Several of the moment’s stated intentions have been negated in some way. First and least evergreen was the idea that returning the viewer’s gaze would viscerally bridge the gap between contemporary Korean audiences and the violent horrors of their country’s all too recent past. Bong has lamented that shooting locations were hard to find because little is left of the nation’s totalitarian aesthetic, and his film’s almost William Castle-like coup de graçe punctures a hole through space-time as if to say: “This might seem like the stuff of ancient history, but democracy has always been vulnerable to delusions of permanence, and ours is still new enough that the Hwaseong murderer could be sitting in the movie theater seat right behind you.” Even non-Korean audiences who discovered the film as it ascended into the canon of world cinema were liable to shiver at the thought that the killer was still out there somewhere, living among decent people like a tiger in the grass.
And then there’s Bong’s oft-mentioned hope that the killer would feel seen — or at least feel something — when he felt Park’s eyes find him in the darkness, a hope that would be frustrated by the predictably sociopathic response Lee shared during his court case: “I just watched it as a movie, I had no emotion towards it.” And yet, revisiting “Memories of Murder” through the Criterion Collection’s deluxe and context-rich new Blu-ray, it’s striking how the closure provided by Lee’s confessions only serves to clarify how the film was never really about him in the first place.
Of course, “great film has subtext” isn’t a shocking revelation, and Bong — a former student demonstrator himself — has never been shy about the fact that his interest in the Hwaseong murders was motivated by how they reflected a national malaise in the South Korean body politic (“I wanted to address the limitations of our nation and society through the film by portraying the tragic losses of the inspectors who worked on the case,” the fresh-faced director says in the 160-minute 2003 making-of documentary included in Criterion’s two-disc set). “Memories of Murder” has always been a slapstick requiem for a traumatic era in the form of a very special episode of “CSI: Gyeonggi Province,” and long before Lee’s confession it had already crystallized into an early example of Bong’s genius for articulating societal ills through genre-inflected stories that offer unobstructed views of their most invisible victims. In other words, there’s nothing about this recent news that retroactively transforms the movie in any material way.
And yet, to borrow a nugget of wisdom from Wong Kar Wai: This is not the same film, and we are not the same audience. Watching “Memories of Murder” in 2021 — at least, as an American watching “Memories of Murder” in 2021 — the last scene leaves behind a different aftertaste than it did before. Once, the coda of Bong’s film gave the impression of a character breaking the fourth wall. Now that we know Lee is in prison, however, it no longer feels like Park is “just looking” at us with the all-seeing eyes he once credited for his “success” as a detective. These days, that fourth wall seems more like a two-way mirror, and the slack-jawed juice extractor salesman doesn’t appear to be searching for a faceless someone in the crowd on the other side of the screen so much as he’s imploring us to recognize the helplessness that led him to switch careers.
Park’s memories of these murders may have faded so far into the past that even the local children seem oblivious to the horrors that once wracked their hometown, but he still feels like the butt of a joke that the killer had been telling on behalf of Korea’s autocratic government. “It’s easy to feel like the murderer was mocking the nation,” Bong says in the aforementioned making-of doc, referring to how the peak of Lee’s reign of terror coincided with Roh Tae-woo’s “war on crime.” Now that the killer’s identity is known, it’s easier to appreciate every other character in Bong’s film as a victim. The vile ones most of all.
Film at Lincoln Center
That collective sense of victimhood applies on a sliding scale, but even at their most violent behavior Park and his goon squad are more impotent than evil (a distinction made literal by the early scene in which Park struggles to have sex with his girlfriend, and deepened by the less than helpful effect that unchecked masculinity has on the murder investigation throughout the rest of the film). Living under the existential threat of military annihilation from your next-door neighbor — and suffering on some level from the psychic discord of trying to police an inherently unjust state — Park is a testosterone-forward country bumpkin who dreams of being like the cops he sees on TV, but will settle for a chance to assert control over any aspect of his existence.
So when a serial killer wanders into Park’s turf, the grisly murders present our shit-kicking hero with a tangible opportunity to clean up his corner of the national rot; to protect the working people of a country that doesn’t give a damn about them. And he does that, of course, by pinning the murders on a disabled boy, abusing him in the process of achieving a forced confession, inadvertently destroying a crime scene, consulting a psychic, ignoring the smartest cop in Hwaseong because she’s a woman, forcing a male cop to cross dress as serial killer bait, conducting a stakeout at a local bath house so that he can apprehend any men without pubes… the list goes on. The mockery he receives from a local boy in the film’s opening scene doesn’t only reflect the comic futility of fighting crime in a country that’s become one, but also the buffoonery of trying.
Park has convinced himself that he can see the evil on people’s faces because he needs to believe that he has even the slightest personal agency to prevent Korea from backsliding further away from the promise of the 21st century; he cites American movies and parrots English phrases with the bitter cool of a kid bragging about an older brother who bullies him at home, and his love-hate relationship with the West is sealed with a cruelly ironic flourish at the end of the movie when a sample of the killer’s semen has to be sent to America because Seoul lacks the technology to test it (a detail made all the more telling by the fact that Korean authorities actually sent the stuff to Japan in real life).
Park is so desperate to catch someone that he’s able to convince himself that every new suspect is the murderer, but Bong is careful to assign Park an even more violent partner named Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha) so that his protagonist is positioned as the ego and not the id of a three-person unit that’s rounded out by a calm and experienced young cop from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung as Seo Tae-yoon). The narrative thrust of his film is fueled by the way that each dead body flattens Park and Seo closer together, and the two men are so maddened by how the killer exploits national disarray that they arrive at the same queasy disillusionment from different sides of the moral spectrum: the bad cop from below and the good cop from above.
The journey there is long and fraught with acute frustration, as the killer veils himself behind the image of an itinerant student protestor and strikes while the police have been called to quell yet another rally. But it’s the maddening irony of the climactic attack — committed under the cover of darkness provided by a national defense drill blackout — that finds Park and Seo reaching the end of the taut rope that Bong has tied between them. Bong honors the cold facts of that ninth and final murder more fastidiously than any of the other killings depicted in the film, and forces us to watch in horror as the teenage victim is prepared for death like a pig on a spit as the detectives are busy chasing their own tales across town.
This is the slaughter that causes Park to recognize his professional inadequacies as the symptoms of a sick government, and also that which compels Seo to abandon deductive reasoning in favor of the more hot-blooded approach that he once looked down upon in his less educated hick partners. As the two men desperately knot the fraying threads of their investigation around the most convincing suspect they have left — a suspect whose guilt is so plausible that viewers implicate themselves in the rush to judgment, while not even Bong and actor Park Hae-il could agree over the character’s true nature — each of the detectives is made to confront the absurdity of seeking justice in an unjust country. Their investigation of the Hwaseong murders ends on a pair of train tracks just outside the mouth of an endless tunnel, the darkness stretching behind them further than either of them can see.
“I still don’t understand [why I wasn’t a suspect],” Lee was quoted as saying after confessing to the killings (he was arrested for the unrelated rape and murder of his sister-in-law). “Crimes happened around me and I didn’t try hard to hide things so I thought I would get caught easily. I bumped into detectives all the time but they always asked me about people around me.” Watching “Memories of Murder” with the knowledge that the culprit was a clumsy monster and not some kind of criminal mastermind, it’s never been easier to appreciate how the authorities didn’t find him because they were hopelessly lost themselves.
“Memories of Murder” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.