The Korean film "Memories of Murder" seems so American from afar. It's got serial killers and comic detectives and sex crimes and night chases and squabbling partners.
But literally in the first sequence it establishes its uniqueness and the understated eye of its director, Joon-ho Bong. A small boy crouches in a wheat field, aware that something is going on. A tractor pulls across the vast yellow plain and drops off a buffoon of a man who seems more like a defrocked clown than the police officer he turns out to be. The boy follows the man into a concrete culvert and there they see the bound legs of a woman's body.
"Go away, brat!" screams the detective.
"Go away, brat!" screams the kid.
"Go on, get out of here!"
"Go on, get out of here!"
The boy's autism -- he replicates everything he sees or hears, including facial expressions and head angles -- is a little detail so real and unusual that it makes the scene jump off the screen at you, come to throbbing, exact life in a stunning way. And, needless to say, you'd never see anything like that in an American film.
Throughout the film, Bong fills his compositions with elements that sum up the incongruity, the sheer messiness, of life at its most banal, even in the middle of a murder investigation. At that same murder scene, people keep slipping down an embankment; children pull apart the scene, destroying any forensic integrity, obliterating clues. The cops round up the usual suspects and interrogate them the usual way: punches followed by kicks followed by more punches. It's not that they get no confessions, it's that everyone confesses.
This is a specific historic South Korea: It's 1986, a military dictatorship rules, there is unrest everywhere, and police work is brutal, broad and lacking technique.
Thus the coming of a murder spree to a small town both excites and overwhelms the locals. Our hero, that bumpkin Du-man Park (Kang-ho Song), cares about the crime, the defilement and death of a beautiful young woman. But he has no idea how to solve it.
One night he's watching the murder site and a young man approaches and asks a young woman for directions. Our cop thinks: Aha! The culprit returns to the scene of the murder. He jumps the guy and beats the hell out of him. And that's how he meets his new partner.
Inspector Seo (Sang-kyung Kim) is from the big city. He has a rational mind and a contempt for the idiots he is fated to work with; but he, too, burns to capture the murderer, who, it soon turns out, has killed not just one but several young women.
To say more, of course, would be to play havoc with the most accessible aspect of the film, which is the chronicle of a big, occasionally stupid and misguided murder investigation. More than whodunit, however, what the filmmaker is interested in is whoisgonnasolveit. We watch as the detectives learn from each other and change under the pressure of the chase.
But what's singular in all this is the director's angle into the material, which is subtle, difficult to pin down, elusive. The best I can do is express the situation in American terms. Imagine two Montgomery, Ala., police detectives -- white, of course -- investigating a series of ugly sex murders in rural Alabama in about 1932 in the black community. They're part of a system of oppression, of course, and thus that system is utterly invisible to them. They have no doubts or qualms about their right to pound the heck out of suspects, to torture them, to trick them into confessions. At the same time, they understand that the murders are vile, evil acts, and they desperately want to apprehend the culprit.
The only antecedents that come to mind, in which the detectives serve a corrupt power and are blind to its injustices, but acknowledge a moral order and seek to apprehend or kill the pervert who violates it, would be "The Night of the Generals," about a police officer hunting a sex criminal in the Nazi general staff, and "In the Heat of the Night," where Rod Steiger is a bigoted lawman who must work with an African American detective played by Sidney Poitier to solve a crime.
In "Memories of Murder," moreover, each character is brilliantly realized, including a hopelessly outclassed supervisor (he throws up a lot) and a number of young women who prove their shrewdness and pluck.
Yet even as the movie presses toward resolution, one can feel the director's reluctance to provide easy epiphanies, smug outcomes, tame answers. He's more interested in capturing a society in flux as illuminated by the crisis of the murder investigation. What emerges is quite extraordinary.
Memories of Murder (132 minutes, at AFI Silver) is not rated but contains gruesome murder scenes as well as profanity, police brutality and nudity.