Memories of Murder: the perfect detective mystery


Noah Dawley, Staff Writer

A third murder just happened in your small town of Hwaseong, South Korea. While detectives are scrambling to put the pieces together, your friends are slowly getting picked off by what seems like the boogeyman. How far will police go to find the monster behind it all?

This is a reality for the people in the film Memories of Murder. This movie was released in 2003 and is the second film directed by Bong Joon-ho, who you might recognize from Parasite, Okja, and Snowpiercer. Memories of Murder accurately depicts the harsh reality of a police investigation as they expand their hunt for a vicious serial killer making his way through town.

Memories of Murder takes place in 1986 and opens with one of the two main characters, detective Park Doo-man (played by Song Kang-Ho), as he looks into a gruesome murder on the edge of town. This is no run-of-the-mill homicide (if that even exists.) This horrific act is done in a very gruesome yet thorough manner. Detectives eventually notice this killer only ever commits his crimes on dark and stormy nights, allowing for no evidence to be left behind.

After a second murder is committed under the same circumstances, the police decide to receive help from the sharp volunteer detective Seo Tae-yoon (played by Kim Sang-kyung.) With both Park and Seo on the case, as well as the rest of the small department, they try their best to uncover the man behind it all. They discover a third murder shortly after, with more to come.

I held off watching this movie for a while because I didn’t think it was for me, but boy was I wrong. There are so many aspects of this film that are done beautifully, which left me severely regretting waiting so long before turning it on.

The first aspect I want to talk about, and probably my favorite part of this movie, is the acting. Each actor completely sells their role, never once making me believe this is anything other than a Korean police force in the 80’s. The two performances I would like to highlight are Park and Seo. The dynamic these two detectives have is worthy of its own movie by itself, but when it’s paired with an interesting and twisting plot, it just lifts this film to a new level.

Another great aspect of Memories of Murder is its pacing. They do such a good job of stretching action sequences and lacing them in between the constantly evolving investigation, making sure the viewer is always engaged through its two-hour and twelve-minute runtime.

The cinematography perfectly encapsulates the vibe of this film by choosing to use a dark/bland color palette that matches the grittiness of this depressing detective story. This style of the movie partners perfectly with its musical score, which is used sparingly and thoughtfully. 

The final aspect of this film I really love is how fleshed out each character is. They perfectly build each character from the ground up, putting their flaws and insecurities on blast for all to see. My favorite example of this is detective Cho Yong-koo. From the second he’s introduced, you understand he is a high-energy wildcard character who is constantly flying through the air to drop-kick people (literally). The film really could have just molded him into the comic relief character, using his personality for cheap laughs, but they don’t. Instead, they decide to give him a tragic, yet relatable, character arch.

Memories of Murder is an adaptation of a 1996 screenplay and is also (loosely) based on a real-life serial killer from Korea in the ’90’s. Bong Joon-ho is a masterclass director on turning concepts into feature-length scripts, and this is no exception. This film has many different twists and turns that are perfectly set up earlier in the movie, making it a prime example of something you never want to walk away from.

This movie was able to intertwine the interesting murder mystery with a thought-provoking political message about policing in Korea during this time period. Memories of Murder is the perfect film to jump into completely blind, no need for background information, a plot summary, or anything along those lines. Just turn it on and explore its amazingness. 

Fair warning; this movie is in Korean with subtitles (obviously.) You forget you are even reading them after the first ten minutes, and with the amount of emotion these actors were able to express through their performance, watching with subtitles is the only true way to experience this film.

The movie ends in a very impactful way, with Park breaking the fourth wall and staring directly into the soul of the viewer, almost as if we were the culprit after all. This makes sense when you consider that the actual killer responsible for the murders this film was (sort of) based on wasn’t identified until 2019.

I only have two criticisms about this film. My first issue lies with the fact that they keep reinforcing the idea that this killer is going to strike again if they don’t catch him; yet, they fall short of leaving a strong sense of urgency with the viewer. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts where you are on the edge of your seat waiting for them to arrest this monster, but they aren’t able to accomplish this over the whole film’s runtime. This is likely attributed to the fact that it’s a prolonged, slow-burn story, and those two aspects are pretty difficult to simultaneously perfect.

Secondly, it has tonal problems at times. The film juggles between a drama, thriller, and even a dark comedy. Bong Joon-ho has been known to struggle in this area a little bit in the past. However, both of these issues are very minuscule in the grand scheme of things.

Memories of Murder is available to rent/buy anywhere or watch with a subscription to Hulu. With all of this being said, I think this film is a perfect display of the masterfulness of Bong Joon-ho as a director and should be talked about more. 

I give Memories of Murder (2003) an amazing 4.7/5 Paws. I enjoyed this so much more than I thought I would. This gritty detective murder mystery is definitely not one to skip out on, especially if you are a fan of Parasite.