“Based on a true story of an unsolved criminal investigation, set under a military dictatorship”

Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho, is a gloomy suspense drama set in the 1980s and 1990s Hwaseong, South Korea, which was under the totalitarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan (till 1988).

A string of gruesome murders takes place in the farmlands of Hwaseong that spark panic in the town. The film is positioned from the perspective of law enforcement executives. It emphasizes on the ideological burns that mar the pupils and the organization, conflagrating the unmitigated pandemonium that the series of events are causing.

The two most important characters that drive Memories of Murder – Detective Park and Detective Seo – are metaphorical parallels representing distinctive belief systems, put to a litmus test by the extraordinary turn of events in the town. Under a raspy and attrite political blanket, Bong Joon-ho, through his visual subtext, a knack for stitching the personal with the social, and the ability to heat up and condense the atmosphere, puts on screen one of the remarkable films of the 21st century.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Recommended Read: Every Bong Joon-Ho Film Ranked


Memories of Murder opens with an intense and claustrophobic portrait shot of a little boy sitting in a wheat plantation as if looking right at the spectators, but it is just a grasshopper he later catches hold of. He engrossingly looks at it, although an abrasive vehicle breaks his attention. Subsequently, he lifts himself up, and so does the camera. From a boxed, apprehensive shot, the image turns into a scenic ambient landscape with farmlands, sky highs, warm piano keys, and synths. Through image and sound construction, Bong Joon-ho introduces his viewers not to Hwaseong or South Korea but to his own world, narrating a story derived from a land, a culture, its political regime, and his own life experiences.

A concatenation of gruesome rape and murder incidents escalates the gravitas of the circumstances. However, the point of view of the civilians is always in the back seat in this authoritarian administration. The interrogation process is cluttered, the police station is unorganized, and the lack of resources is conspicuously showcased. As the film unfolds itself, the chaotic executive system becomes egregiously transparent. In a vivacious sequence of yet another rape and murder scenario, the crime scene is unmonitored; journalists and civilians are swarming around the dead body; a tractor drives on the possible footprints of the killer, and the forensic team are late.

However, the director’s visual storytelling virtuoso and grip on cinematic language ponderously eyes onto the scene and digs its claws into it, helping the segment escalate from a routine aftermath of a crime to a symbolic allusion.

An uncut shot that energizes the mayhem as the head of the department trembling onto the crime scene for the piece of land’s steep disposition, kids and people moving around in the background, the reprimanding yawps of a tractor that contaminate the evidence, the forensics team arriving late, and again, trembling onto the scene, total chaos, and cut.

Ideology and Representation

Detective Park is a native of Hwaseong, and he can allegedly tell a killer by looking at their eyes. He usually operates through violent conduct and instincts rather than procedural drills. In their first confrontation, Park and Detective Seo land on heavy feet owing to a symbolic misunderstanding. The initial dialogue is a frictional exchange of what will unfold in the form of another major thematic layering of the film. Park tells Seo, “How can a detective be such a bad fighter?” Seo replies, “How can a detective have such a bad eye for criminals?” And thus, the ideological battle between the two permeates and coagulates the film.

Detective Seo is from Seoul, the national capital and the largest metropolis of South Korea. He follows procedure and protocol, relying on experience and evidence. Inch by inch, Seo compartmentalizes information and tries to make sense of the chaos in the authoritarian regime, being a representative of the system itself—a representative by position and not by ideology.

Bong Joon-ho meticulously juxtaposes the system and its pupil, wherein chaos is the outcome of order, and the outcome is frantically indecipherable. Detective Park and his affiliate Detective Cho’s constant failures of haphazardly covering the cracks lead to incessant leakage and a total collapse of the system, very succinctly portrayed by the director.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Kwang Ho, a mentally challenged individual, is the prime suspect, who has been in custody for a while. After days of torture, the crime will be reenacted with him, and the afternoon eventuates into total disruption, blown to smithereens in slow-mo. The systemic brutality and turmoil are exposed with a multitude of swarming flashes and public unrest.

Chaos vs. Order Bong Joon-ho
The haphazard, chaotic investigation of Detective Park vs. the methodical investigation of Detective Seo

On the other hand, Detective Seo is always lurking in the background, scanning through printed pages, looking for evidence, and ruminating through the landscape to solve the mystery and murders. “Documents never lie,” he reiterates throughout the film.

In a constant psychological battle with reality, Seo keeps intellectually breaking down the circumstantial evidence, narrowing possibilities, and deriving conclusions.

Memories of Murder showcases a political mess through the nature of its characters and causality within the given environment. The first prime suspect, Kwang Ho, is mentally challenged and faces incessant torture owing to the lack of sanity and sensitivity within Park and Cho. The case initially renders Kwang Ho guilty and later as innocent. In this sequential derailment of the case, when Kwang Ho is later recognized as the only witness for one of the murders, he is run over by a train. Kwang Ho’s innocence is not only about the crime, but he also personifies innocence. His death symbolizes the penance of purity in a society phantasmagorically doomed for its apathy and soullessness.

Recommended Read: The 35 Best South Korean Movies of the 21st Century

Final Act

In the 2nd half of the film, the detectives seemingly get closer to capturing the murderer. On a rainy night of an anticipatory murder, Detective Park and co. call for two garrisons of men while adjudicating a state of emergency in the town. However, the men have gone to suppress a demonstration in another town. The night of possibly getting hold of the murderer, they fail to avail the resources. It’s one of the very few direct political connotations in the film. The crows are looming as dusk approaches Hwaseong, and another victim’s body rots in the soaking barrens of the town.

Once they manage to take the suspect, Hyeon-gyu, into custody, Bong Joon-ho’s frame finally locks the four detectives together. For the first time, the interrogation room is ghastly dark. However, their faces are illuminated, literally and symbolically. This time the scuffle is not between systemic brutality and feeble innocence. It is a struggle not to succumb to death. The almost unfruitful interrogation gets heated up moralistically and psychologically with aggression, a series of words and accusations hurling in the room, one kick at the light, and it’s dark again.

Detective Seo, at the more passive end of the philosophical spectrum, gives in to the anarchical atmosphere, resulting in his own ideological vandalization. With the lack of significant evidence with a state of excruciating helplessness in the face of death, defeat, and rain, Seo is on the tracks with the suspect Hyeon-gyu as the camera stares into a dark cataclysmic tunnel. He physically attempts to annihilate Hyeon-gyu as an act of bemoaning and repenting his own failure.

When he is about to kill him, disregarding the failed DNA match, Detective Park interrupts, almost in a reverse ideological accident. At the edge of the tunnel, Detective Park looks into the eyes of Hyeon-gyu, Hyeon-gyu looks into the eyes of Detective Park, and we, as viewers, look into the eyes of them both. “Do you get up each morning, too?” he laments as Hyeon-gyu disappears into the tunnel, ascending into darkness.

Memories of Murder_Bong Joon-ho
A few instances from Bong Joon-ho’s imagery that represent the loss of order

The case remains unsolved, and the mystery unboxed. Detective Seo, being a staunch proponent of rationality and a critique of Detective Park’s methods, now walks in the same pair of shoes as his. The state of utter chaos has metastasized through every broken gap and leaking hole. The citizens live in a state, the state is governed by a system, and the system controls the state. A series of extraordinary events and the system comprehensively crumbles. Memories of Murder explores these gaps and holes through its narrative and arrives at the helpless and heavily repercussive culmination. Bong Joon-ho constantly uses symbols such as the scarecrow, Detective Cho’s leg amputation, looming crows, heavy downpours, piles of garbage, visiting a shaman, and so on – heavily indicative of the loss of soul and humanness in such order.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Memories from the Past

It’s 2003, and from being one of the most financially downtrodden countries in the world, South Korea is on course to transform into a global superpower as an example of the modern democratic capitalist model. The changes are drastic and incomprehensible with this evolution of time and culture. The nonchalant architecture and flat lights, the clothes and colors, the conflicts and conversations, and the products of consumption and information are all different.

From a rainy, cold train track and the pitch black devourment of a tunnel to bright lights reflecting off of the apartment walls on a sunny day, after two hours of building an undisturbed affinity with 1980s Hwaseong, within a single transition, Bong Joon-ho teleports the viewer to a place utterly alien to the film experience thus far, almost like we’re now existing and breathing in a different world altogether.

In Memories of Murder’s opening act, right before Detective Seo is introduced walking on the unmetalled pavement with farmlands on each side, a scarecrow makes its being at the edges, quoting, “Turn yourself in, or you may rot and die.” It is sinister and discomforting, not just by meaning but also by atmosphere and filmic rhythm. It is cloudy, hazy, and mysterious. Bong Joon-ho’s flair for sprinkling visual subtext is effervescent throughout the course of the film. The kid grappling the grasshopper, the broken-down car in smoke, the chopsticks snapping before eating, and the car stalling upon the four detectives after they find out the DNA samples would have to be sent to the USA for examination.

These are moments that subconsciously evoke disappointment and uneasiness. They do not accelerate the plot. However, they add to the thematic ambiance, providing meaning and drawing waters from the wells of karma, religion, faith, and destiny. When such moments of despondency are recurring and torrential, the despondency is not only a facile consequence of insubstantial causes but rather indicative of something bigger that pours incessantly throughout Memories of Murder. The final rape and subsequent murder are initiated at the sirens, “Citizens, this is a civil defense drill, a blackout is called for in all buildings and houses” the town is shut down, the crime materializes, and the system not only fails but involuntarily orchestrates the materialization.

The film opens warm and orange with kids playing and mischievously imitating amidst a laying corpse. It rains and grows colder with moral ambiguity and despair and eventually submerges in totality. Bong Joon-ho’s world infuses themes of karma, lawlessness, anarchy, systemic failure, innocence, and more, as organs of the film to thrive and sustain. It is not just a psychological crime orchestra of violence and psychopathy but full of soul and sanctity.

Memories of Murder (2003)
The opening and closing shots of Memories of Murder (2003)

Detective Park, now a sales employee, visits the first murder site after years, revisiting the memories that materialized in the past. We, as viewers, go back to the same moment we started this journey at. Park looks into the camera, and through Park, Bong Joon-ho now looks at us, the passive participants, to finally participate in the present after a comprehensive exhibition of memories from the past.

P.S. – The original murder case was solved in 2019

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Memories of Murder (2003) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd

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