So all Song Kang-ho needs is a good movie… Well, not quite. In my Foul King post, I accused Song of being the weak link in Korean cinema and maybe he’s not. Maybe he just makes some bad choices. Still, in Memories of Murder, he plays a well-intentioned buffoon of a detective facing a rural serial killer. Memories runs strong for the majority of the film, but it’s based on a true story and that reality mucks up the denouement. It’s a mix of a mystery, thriller, and a comedy, but in the end it needs to be a drama about men working together and the film hasn’t been building for that conclusion.
Bong Joon-ho is a wonderful director and his sense of composition and timing makes Memories work, then he goes and breaks a big rule. Never have someone look into the camera unless it’s going to work. He does it and it doesn’t work and it hurts the film. Otherwise, he’s great. Memories has a quietness about it when it’s among the rice paddies or in the fields or anywhere in outdoor rural settings. When it gets to the town or city, Bong loses the film. For example, the rural town is never visually defined. It doesn’t seem too rural, as it’s got a huge factory district and such. The lack of establishing shots only becomes a problem when he’s moving from country to town.
The script is a more complicated matter. The film has two and a half protagonists, Song, a city detective played by Kim Sang-kyung, and another rural thug cop played by Kim Roe-ha. The thug cop is hardly a character at times, more just a reminder of Song’s character’s mindset before he realized his tactics weren’t going to stop the killings. The real killings took place over five years. In the film, it seems like six months at best. There’s never any look at the city detective–who the film follows once he arrives–outside his police work and there’s never any hint he exists outside the police station.
While inside the police station, everything–writing, directing, acting–works great. When it’s about the investigation of the crime, it works great. But when it gets to cinematic moments (except a great chase scene), Memories of Murder trips. It’s a slick looking film–lush colors and perfect film stock–so any grittiness has to come from the characters, and the actors don’t really have any to offer. Kim Sang-kyung is fine through most of the film, but when it’s most important for him to be really good, he isn’t. He doesn’t have any subtext (which, oddly, Song does).
In the end, the film can’t escape the realities of the actual murder investigation. While it doesn’t let the audience predict (unless the viewer knows something about the case), Bong doesn’t prepare the film for where it goes. The end is a disconnect from what came before and it’s too bad, because until the third act, Memories was going to be outstanding. Instead, it’s just really good.