Cinema has always been fascinated by the procedural drama. The format has been done over and over again. There’s a mysterious case and one man is here to solve it – often with questionable morals. And since this was established by the noir detective stories of the mid 1940s and 1950s, audiences are still captivated by the same themes and stories. As much as we like to think our tastes have changed, they have not. We will always love stories of mortality, murder and the evil that humankind is capable of.
In recent times, we’ve been bombarded by stories of detectives with cases to solve. Most noticeably, television has become awash with broken male figures who struggle over a series of episodes to get to the bottom of a crime. Much in the same way as classic noir works, a crime is explained, and then a morally ambiguous character works it out and reveals the answer at the end. It makes for gritty drama but is often served up with an instant, dulling sense of closure and gratification.
Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant film, Memories of murder, breaks the restrictive format we’ve now become entranced by. The 2003 film is based on Korea’s first serial murderer case in history, the Hwaseong murders of 1986 to 1991. A city outside of Seoul, Hwaseong saw the death and rape of ten women. With a gravely underprepared police force, the case was never solved.
While it may not be a complete departure from the themes of the detective drama, Memories of Murder is certainly unique. Much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it is a film less about a crime being solved and more about the struggles of people solving it. For the hopeless trio of detectives at the centre of it, the story becomes about self-doubt, paranoia and anger. Indeed, the detectives become more and more world weary as time goes by, the murders becoming consuming aspects of their lives. In the end they are on the case as much for themselves as they are for the victims.
A case without a solution is a frustrating one for an audience. Loose ends confuse and bad leads anger the part of us that cries for swift justice. Also, without the clear banner of antagonist and protagonist that we are so used to, Memories of Murder is a film where good and bad are unidentifiable. Those in charge of the investigation even blur the lines themselves, violently trying to prise out confessions from anyone in a hope to give themselves some closure. Khang Ho Song puts in a stellar performance as someone who will do anything to get an answer – however true it is.
It is a confusing film; but one that fights against the stale parameters of crime drama. In a world where we so often see the good guy arrest the bad guy, Bong Joon-ho reminds us that sometimes life doesn’t work that way.