Memories of Murder is Maybe the Best Serial Killer Movie Ever Made

Memories of Murder is, quite simply, the best serial killer movie ever made. It is yet another example of how Korean cinema does right what Hollywood too often does wrong. Of course to label Memories of Murder a serial killer movie is as misleading as lumping Peeping Tom in with the Hannibal Lecter quartet. While the film is ostensibly about the (ultimately unsuccessful) police investigation into a string of ritualistic killings of young women, there is more going on here than just your simplistic game of cat and mouse. In fact, at a certain point it becomes less clear who is worse, the cops or the killer.

Okay, that is not necessarily accurate, but clearly Memories of Murder speaks to a Korean sensibility of police corruption and brutality that informs the film with a historical perspective that is guaranteed to remain at least partially obstructed to most American viewers due to our general ignorance of anyone else’s culture but our own. Certainly a working knowledge of the history of how Korean police operate to frame suspects would be a boon to a fuller appreciation of Memories of Murder, but even simple American ignorance isn’t enough to block enjoyment of this masterfully made movie. Be forewarned, however; as I alluded earlier, if you must know who did it at the end of a serial killer movie, then save yourself the aggravation and avoid Memories of Murder. See, I am serious when I say it is far more than a mystery; you never even find out for sure who the killer is. That is not a spoiler, but a vital piece of knowledge for the vast majority of people raised on television.

So what makes Memories of Murder worth the investment if you never even find out who the killer is? Well, to begin with there is the performance of a man who is well on his way to becoming one of my favorite actors around today, Song Kang-Ho. He played the dim-witted father in The Host and it will probably take you a few minutes to realize it’s the same guy. Likewise, the actor who played his brother in The Host also makes an appearance in Memories of Murder and I think he’s even better here. In fact, there isn’t a single performance in the movie that is anything less than fascinating. And, for the record, Memories of Murder was directed by the same monumental talent who helmed The Host, Joon-Ho Bong. Part of me hopes he makes the trek to Hollywood because I’d love to see him teach our big boys a lesson; another part hopes he stays far away and doesn’t become corrupted. The highlight of Song’s performance for me will always be his epiphany that the murderer might be, as he terms it, a “baldy” and his subsequent follow-up.

On that note, let me state right here that part of what makes Memories of Murder linger your memory so profoundly is that it, like The Host, verges wildly from deeply emotional drama to laugh-out loud humor. Gradually, however, the real focus of the film becomes too overwhelming to deny. Ultimately, Memories of Murder is just simply not terribly concerned with the serial killer, but rather with the measures that cops will go to solve a crime. In the end, it is far less accurate to lump this film in with serial killer movies than it is with such masterful examinations of police corruption as Serpico and L.A. Confidential.

The final scene is nothing short of haunting. When Song’s character turns to stare in the camera after a little girl gives a description of the person who might or might not have committed the murders, he gives so much room for interpretation as to what that look means that you may find yourself arguing over the meaning of the ending of Memories of Murder for hours.