A friend used to insist that critics would heap praise on the stalest Hollywood romantic comedies and action films if they were made in France. Reactionary anti-elitism aside, he wasn’t entirely wrong: sometimes the same old song sounds better with an accent. Consider Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder—which isn’t just a serial-killer movie, but also a buddy-cop serial killer movie in which a Seoul detective (Kim Sang-kyung) travels to a rural province to help a roughneck policeman (Song Kang-ho) solve a string of rape-murders. Their working methods are incompatible, and though neither ever grumbles, “I’m getting too old for this shit,” most of the other beats they hit are familiar from hundreds of American blockbusters.
But the fact that the movie takes place in South Korea does make a difference. For one, it affects the geography of the case itself, which is restricted to two square kilometers in a country that, as Song gripes, it only takes two legs to cover. Song and Kim walk around and around the crime scenes, seeing the same faces and the same clues, which get so jumbled together that they become increasingly tempted to just frame someone and be done with it. It’s also significant that Memories of Murder is based on a true story and takes place in 1986, when Korea was still reeling from a 1979 presidential assassination and extended martial law. Between the gas-attack drills and the persistent uncertainty about how to handle a sex killer, the movie seems to satirize Korea’s messy rush to modernization—though decoding it fully would probably take a good working knowledge of 20th century Asian history.
What matters from a dramatic perspective is that the country’s general sense of disorganization keeps the cops from getting all the resources they need to crack the case. They can’t keep people from tromping all over the evidence; they have to send DNA samples off to the U.S. for testing, during which time their prime suspect is free to keep operating. Memories of Murder follows the fairly conventional rhythms of a police procedural, sprinkling in a few gruesome sequences (none more affecting than the slow peel of a Band-Aid off dead skin) and a few shockers (none more hair-raising than a scene in which the killer unexpectedly leaps from a grassy embankment). But Bong’s often comically wide-eyed approach to the material makes the familiar seem almost new. As Song and Kim discover techniques like suspect profiling for the first time, it’s as if they’re anatomizing how cop thrillers are made. Memories of Murder screens Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema.