Shiralkar: The detective’s dilemma


Columnist Parth Shiralkar revels over the film “Memories of Murder” and its recently revealed murderer. 

Parth Shiralkar

From 1986-91, a series of murders took place in the rural parts of Hwaseong, around 35 miles of Seoul, Korea. Ten women between the ages of 13 and 71 were targeted. The killings accumulated fame for their brutal executions, inspiring a 2003 film by Bong Joon-Ho (of “Parasite” fame). “Memories of Murder” is a South Korean crime drama based in 1986, a cultural phenomenon that may just have been the first domino in a series of events leading to the arrest of the actual killer. Heavy spoilers ahead; watching the film is encouraged.

At the time of its release, the movie was mildly criticized for embellishing the details of the original case. For example, even though some other details remain untouched, like the killer sexually assaulting and suffocating the women with their own clothing, the film shows that the killer has a target demographic of blonde women who wear red-colored clothing and only hunts only on rainy days, which was never the case. The killer’s description is retained (male, 20s, thin, plain-faced), and the detectives involved end up with more or less the same conclusion.

“Where,” Plato asks, discussing the character of a warrior hero, “are we to find a character that is both gentle and big-tempered at the same time? After all, a gentle nature is the opposite of an angry one.” And such is the case with the detectives of “Memories of Murder.” The three detectives (one of whom is played by Song Kan-ho, also of “Parasite” fame) are all different personalities, sweet and sour and spicy at the same time, a crossover no one deserved. As much as it is about the killings, so much more of the film is about the investigation itself.

The investigation of the case is carried out in a state of constant turmoil. The lead detective and his partner are a chaotic duo who engage in activities ranging from physically torturing a mentally disabled suspect to forging evidence in order to speed up the investigation. The third detective, a volunteer from Seoul, is a far calmer personality, the only one who brings any tangible skills to the table. The lead detective struggles with his eccentricities, an apathetic hero with a brute for a sidekick, an inebriated warrior stuck in the eye of a storm. The volunteer detective is an enigma himself, a man with perhaps a personal stake in the case.

Although the killer is never found, the movie ends on a powerful note. Years after the crimes, in 2003, the lead detective (Song Kan-ho) is now a businessman. Something compels him to go back to the site of the second murder, where he sees a little girl. She tells him about another man she saw recently show up to the site and reminisce about his something he did there. Was this the elusive killer from all those years ago? At another stark reminder of his life’s biggest failure, the detective is overcome with shame, guilt, anger and raw hope — a haunting expression captured in one of the finest ending shots of any film ever made.

When the film came out, it sparked anew an interest in the cold investigation and drew some more criticism for showcasing the Korean police force’s shortcomings. More reports from the local news outlets, like this article, suggest that a widespread curiosity was being fueled by this film, which was on its gradual way to cult status. Much recently, in 2019, the actual killer confessed to the crimes. The Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency confirmed that they had collected DNA evidence directly linking 56-year-old Lee Choon-jae to the 1980s murders. When asked for comment, filmmaker Joon-ho highlighted and lauded the police agency’s efforts.

“Memories of Murder” is really a film that has laid bare the banality of violence. The characters in the film — life, even — are apathetic to all kinds of societal acts. The more destitute strata of modern civilization is glanced over in bouts of sheer indifference. Like the lead detective, one is spellbound by the notion of finding out who the killer is, so hypnotized by the prospect of closure that the investigation begins to blur your very morals, taking a bigger toll than you had accounted for. And, like the detective, when thrust into a whirlwind we did not prepare for, it is only up to us to find the balance between the right and the necessary. Wash your hands and stay safe.