Bong Joon-ho's masterful policier Memories Of Murder follows the investigation into Korean society's first serial killer, a methodical, elusive predator who raped and murdered 10 women within a two-kilometer radius. The killings evoked a special intensity of shock and despair, not only because the perpetrator was so difficult to snare, but because people simply couldn't comprehend the scale of his crimes. Yet in the tradition of New Korean Cinema, which can shift tonal gears faster than a Maserati, Bong plays most of the events for broad, uproarious comedy while still managing a devastating undercurrent of sadness. It takes enormous skill to pull off such a high-wire act without diminishing the gravity of the situation, but Bong and his first-rate cast are up to the task, perhaps because they root the questionable antics of the film's provincial detectives in palpable frustration and anguish.
Set in a rural backwater in Gyunggi Province, Memories Of Murder begins in 1986 when the latest victim is discovered in a ditch, her hands bound behind her back and her neck revealing marks of strangulation. The two local detectives (Song Kang-ho and Kim Rwe-ha) in charge of the case are, to put it mildly, in well over their heads, and their investigative methods aren't exactly up to sophisticated modern standards. These Keystone Kops rely on their dubious instincts and engage in a game of bad cop/worse cop with the area's small-time hoods, beating them around until they cough up a confession. The silent heavy to Song's gregarious chief, Kim actually has a special cover to keep his combat boots clean while he's dropkicking a suspect. When detective Kim Sang-kyung arrives from Seoul with a firm commitment to protocol, a tense rivalry inevitably develops between the two parties, but their relationship slowly evolves as the situation grows more desperate.
Memories Of Murder's urban-cop-meets-hick-cop dynamic recalls the 1992 neo-noir gem One False Move, though unlike Bill Paxton's backwater sheriff in the earlier film, Song and Kim Rwe-ha have no real interest in impressing (or even accommodating) their more seasoned counterpart. Some of the funniest scenes have Kim Sang-kyung looking on in bemusement at his host's methods, such as a sequence in which Song borrows a suspect's shoe, makes an imprint at the crime scene, and uses the picture as evidence in his interrogation. At one point, Song even turns to a shaman for leads. But behind all these wacky hijinks lurks a genuine sense of despair, a feeling underlined by the quietly powerful coda. The memories of the title are still fresh, and for these men, this region, and this country, they're hard to live down.