Detective Park Doo-man (Bong regular and “Parasite” star Song Kang-ho) lives and works in the Gyeonggi Province in South Korea in the mid-‘80s. He’s not necessarily incompetent but he’s also not often faced with intense criminal investigations. He’s inexperienced. And so when a series of brutal rapes and murders begins in the area, Park is one of the few people to realize early on what his department could be facing. There’s an incredible early sequence in which a body is laying in a field, exposed, as police officers and locals fumble about the area. A cop tumbles down a hill. A tractor driver destroys a shoeprint that could have been evidence. No one seems to have any idea what to do. Without exaggerated comedy or melodrama, it captures how investigations can be hampered not so much just through ineptitude but something closer to apathy. They don’t know how seriously to handle the crime scene because they haven’t had to take anything this seriously before, and they have no idea how bad things are going to get. Bong’s direction in this sequence is incredible, finding the rhythms of bad policework in a way that makes it feel organic while also fluidly moving his camera through a large, open space.
It’s only one of many sequences in “Memories of Murder” that rank among his best as a director. An officer from Seoul named Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) has come to assist in the investigation and he’s startled a bit, as Bong intends viewers to be as well, by the tactics of Park and his colleagues. Basically, it’s a process of finding a possible suspect and then torturing them into confessing. An early suspect is a mentally handicapped boy in the village, and Seo quickly realizes that he couldn’t possibly have committed the crime, even as a false confession is being forced out of him. Again, “Memories of Murder” is a procedural about people with no procedures. They’re flailing against the unknown, trying as hard as they can to close a case that’s getting out of control.
The most accomplished aspect of Bong’s work is the calibration of tone. At first, some of the failures of the investigation feel almost comedic—the officer falling down the hill, Park attacking Seo the first time he sees him because he thinks he’s a suspect, etc.—but Bong very carefully turns up the intensity in terms of tone. The scenes of suspect abuse are upsetting, not merely for human rights violations, but because of how much further it seems Park is getting away from the truth. As the team learns that the killer only strikes on rainy nights and always calls in the same song request to a local police station before he does, the sense that the killer is simply smarter than Park and his abusive colleagues intensifies. And Song sells that increasing concern that his team are outmatched in one of his best performances. Bong also brilliantly casts all of this against a backdrop of political unrest—a key interview takes place during a school drill and the chief can’t get help when they need a lockdown because every officer is too busy suppressing a protest. The whole system is broken enough that evil is allowed to flourish.