The blackly eccentric humor of writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s “Barking Dogs Never Bite” is anchored to a much more substantial framework in his sophomore feature, “Memories of Murder.” Pic is a powerful, slow-burning portrait of human fallibility centered on a real-life series of unsolved murders in a country town. Part low-key character comedy, part atmospheric chiller, this much-awaited entry in the Korean spring release sked establishes Bong as a helmer with a distinct vision of his own, supported by a strong cast that’s totally at one with the material. Interest from A fests should be certain, with some niche theatrical business also possible, given critical support.
The real-life events which the film uses as a springboard saw 10 women raped and murdered within a close radius in a small town in Gyeong-gi province, south of Seoul, during 1986-’91. The victims ranged from a 13-year-old school girl to a 71-year-old grandmother; the cause of death ranged from strangulation to stabbing; and one cadaver was bizarrely found to have nine pieces of peach stuffed inside her vagina. The unknown perpetrator was dubbed South Korea’s first serial killer.
From its first shot — repeated at the end, but with a different protagonist — of a pair of uncomprehending peasant eyes against a flat, serene landscape, the film has an assurance and control that’s streets ahead of Bong’s “Barking Dogs” (2000). Image sums up the fractured innocence that greeted the murders, as well as the inefficiency with which the investigation was conducted, despite huge resources of manpower.
Though date captions are used early on, as the first victims are found, pic soon abandons any pretence at docu realism as the main characters emerge. Leading the investigation is local cop Park (Song Kang-ho), a bluff, rough-and-ready type who, following some gossip, tries to pin the murders on the town’s half-wit, Baek (Park Noh-shik).
As a more experienced cop, Seo (Kim Sang-gyeong), arrives from Seoul, Park and his thuggish sidekick, Jo (Kim Roi-ha), are still trying to beat a confession out of Baek. When Seo proves that Baek couldn’t possibly have done the murders, and leads the way to a third, as yet undiscovered corpse, resentment between the yokel cops and the big-city detective boil over in a drunken session one evening.
Though the main characters are pretty standard, and the tensions between them familiar from a host of crimers, the way in which they’re played and directed is refreshingly different. Just as Park is much more than a boneheaded country cop, so the shaggy-haired Seo is hardly a slick yuppie type from Seoul. And though the local cops’ methods of interrogation and investigation border on the criminally incompetent — Park even consults a shaman at one point — they’re portrayed in a way that cleverly oscillates between the surreal and macabre.
Pic’s tone slowly darkens halfway as the audience is shown a murder committed, and a female cop (Byeon Heui-bong) links the crimes to repeated requests for a song on a local radio station. Following a weird stakeout and chase on foot one night — the movie’s only “action” sequence — the police separately trace the radio listener (Park Hae-il) and think they’ve got their man. But by now, the more methodical Seo has become as obsessed with nailing a perpetrator as Park was at the start.
International prints of the movie should be prefaced with a caption explaining the real-life background and that the crimes were never solved, as this knowledge — which Korean auds will already be aware of — directly explains helmer Bong’s approach. With the ending always in clear view, Bong has focused on the investigators rather than the crimes, and on the effect of the crimes rather than their inherent thrills. The tension thus comes not from any traditional, last-reel solution but from the solution always being teasingly just out of reach. A neat coda, set in 2003, plays into this with a wallop.
As the earthy Park, who finally achieves a kind of self-knowledge, Song (the title character in “The Foul King” and North Korean sergeant in “JSA”) establishes himself as one of the industry’s premier screen presences, and plays well against Kim Sang-gyeong (the lead in “Turning Gate”) as the quieter but more focused Seo. Smaller parts are exceptionally well cast and played, from Song Jae-ho’s canny police chief, through Park Noh-shik’s rolling-eyed dimwit, to Park Hae-il’s creepy main suspect.
Taro Iwashita’s gently susurrous score supplies atmosphere in tune with the flatlands setting, and Kim Sun-min’s editing is trim across the two hour-plus span.