I find it hard to judge Asian films, because so few are made for a Western audience. And yet, despite an ending that could be described as underwhelming to a viewer this side of the world, I found Memories of Murder intensely stylish and enjoyable.
They never catch the killer. In crime films, catching the criminal is the payoff – the smart deductions that lead to the brilliant conclusion. But they’re not present in Memories of Murder. It’s forgivable, though, since even for the director, this classic payoff is always second place to creating engaging drama.
Memories of Murder is character-driven, no matter how exciting the story becomes. No matter how incredibly proficient each and every shot is. No matter how slick some of the set-pieces are. The fact that the audience is robbed of the payoff of finding out the identity of the killer is a sign that the mystery was never the most important thing.
I’ve read that Memories of Murder was supposed to be a metaphor for the state of the South Korean government in the 80s and 90s. There’s always a risk when making a film with a message, that you alienate anybody who isn’t adequately educated for such commentary.
Not so with Memories of Murder. It’s a film with so many layers – a classic crime story, a tightly-directed masterpiece, a political metaphor, and more – that even this ignorant Westerner can agree with its position in the Top 250.