The Daily Stream: Memories Of Murder Continues To Haunt Long After The Real-Life Killer Was Found

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Memories of Murder"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: Loosely based on the string of murders in the '80s committed by Korea's first confirmed serial killer, "Memories of Murder" was the crime thriller that put Bong Joon-ho on the map. Bong's frequent collaborator Song Kang-ho stars as an inept country detective who is first assigned to the case of two women who are found raped and murdered, but as the bodies start to pile up, it becomes clear that he's out of his depth. An experienced detective from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung) is brought in, and though Song's Park Doo-man naturally butts head with Kim's by-the-books Seo Tae-yoon, the case and its rapidly cooling trail of evidence starts to drastically change the both of them.

Why It's Essential Viewing

"Memories of Murder" is often unfairly compared to David Fincher's "Zodiac" ("Memories" was first!) but the two of them stand side by side as the pinnacle of haunting, deeply unsettling crime dramas. Though to be honest, of the two, I prefer the chaotic viciousness of "Memories of Murder" over the steady-handed horror of "Zodiac." The visceral gut-punch of Bong's 2003 thriller doesn't fade even in the wake of the 2019 arrest of the real-life serial killer who inspired "Memories of Murder" (one of the things that "Memories" does have over "Zodiac," no matter how many suspects pop up over the years). To this day, "Memories of Murder" and its desperate, accusatory final shot — performed beautifully by Song, one of our finest working actors — still haunts me.

Watching Memories of Murder is an almost jarring experience at first. Like many of director Bong Joon-ho's films, the 2003 film ricochets between tones and characters at breakneck speed, toeing the line between black comedy and grim thriller, and oftentimes crowding each frame with so much movement that it can be overwhelming for viewers used to the slow-burn of many U.S. crime dramas. But it doesn't take long to see that every shot and every frame is meticulously crafted by the South Korean auteur, who shows the full range of his versatility in just his second feature film. It's a masterful character-driven crime drama that is equal turns infuriating and exhilarating.

A Final Shot to the Gut

The thing about "Memories of Murder" is that it's an uncomfortable watch. Not in the way of mood, or atmosphere, or a mounting sense of dread (though the film has all of that in spades), but in its nakedly unsympathetic protagonists. Song's Detective Park Doo-man is thuggish, unethical, and borderline cruel — willing to pin the murders on a mentally challenged young man, whom his violent partner beat a confession out of. And as the case wears on, our straightlaced detective, Seo Tae-yoon, finds himself driven to desperate, violent measures that are no better than Detective Park's methods. But the flaws of these men pale in comparison to the incomprehensible evil of the serial killer, whose murders become more horrifying with each body that turns up.

"Memories of Murder" blurs the line between right and wrong, or good and evil, culminating in that masterstroke of a final shot in which Park Doo-man, now retired from policework and settled in a career as a salesman, revisits the spot where the first body was discovered. A young girl asks him what he's doing, and he responds that he's reminiscing about something that happened there a long time ago. The girl thinks it's strange, noting that another man was there just a few days ago, doing the same thing. Suspecting that this man was the killer that he never caught, Park Doo-man urgently asks what he looked like. "Ordinary," the girl responds. And in a moment that breaks the fourth wall, Park Doo-man stares at the screen, simultaneously accusing and pleading with the audience — it could be any one of you, Song's eyes say.

It's a final shot that feels like a stab in the heart, an accusatory finger jab to the chest. Perhaps any one of us is capable of such extreme evil, or — at the very least — are guilty of letting crimes like these happen. When evil has the face of anyone in the crowd, perhaps the world will never feel safe.