Ben Reyes’s review published on Letterboxd:
In the late 1980s, during South Korea's duration under the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan, the farm city of Hwaseong was struck with a series of ten brutal murders, with the female victims found raped and strangled. For thirty years, Korean police were hopeless to find the murderer, until 2019, when DNA evidence was able to link murderer Lee Choon-jae to the killings. In 2003, sixteen years before Lee Choon-jae 's guilt was discovered, Bong Joon-ho used the Hwaseong murders as the basis for this film, Memories of Murder.
The film that truly announced Bong Joon-ho as a major talent, Memories of Murder is a haunting, unsettling film, not due to any particularly graphic scenes or moments of violence, but rather the horrific realization that these events did happen, and justice was held back for so frighteningly long.
Bong Joon-ho, who's career of course would only rise from here (one word: Parasite), proves himself once more to be a truly genius artist of his craft. With a unique blend of dark humor and social commentary that would define his later works, Bong studies the social malaise that hovered over Korea, with a police department often more concerned with crushing protestors than solving crimes, and a pervasive sense of moral corruption throughout. Using long yet flawlessly assembled shots that often include the entire ensemble for a given scene, Bong makes a film that's tone slowly morphs and shifts as it flows, as the true horror of the crimes committed—and what they mean for our rough mannered protagonists—truly begins to sink in, the pain at the heart of the story slowly moving to the forefront.
Central to this success is the mighty Song Kang-ho, beginning his very fruitful collaboration with Bong Joon-ho here, as the snarking, seemingly bumbling but ultimately sincere police detective Park Doo-man, who is tasked with trying to find the mysterious killer. Song's performance is able to brilliantly fluctuate between slapstick boorishness and a haunted pathos, as the darkness of the case wears more and more on Detective Park's soul, as victim after victim turns up dead, but all leads ultimately amount to nothing. Kim Sang-kyung meanwhile, plays the by-the-book Seoul detective Seo Tae-yoon, who at first seems the most level headed, but reveals a darker side as his investigations breed an ever growing obsession, and willingness to twist and warp the rules he once held so dear. Kim's performance is one of a man's soul becoming more and more frayed, as the seemingly neat and ordered world he's built for himself slowly collapses, leaving him unable to answer the moral questions that collapse raises.
The supporting cast, which Boon allows to function as a free flowing ensemble, is also stellar, be it Kim Roi-ha as the dropkick loving Detective Cho Yong-koo, Song Jae-ho as the frustrated police chief Shin Dong-chul, Park No-shik as a mentally disabled burn victim who is a suspect, and Park Hae-il as factory worker Park Hyeon-gyu, another suspect.
Kim Hyung-koo's sweeping cinematography captures both the rich farmland of Hwaseong's landscape, to the slow encroachment of the malaise that pervades the entire nation with shades of grey, along with the pouring of rain. Tarō Iwashiro's mournful score perfectly underlines the sense of pain that comes from having justice stolen, while moments of tension and fear are weaved throughout.
Impeccably told and impactful to the core, Memories of Murder proved to be Bong Joon-ho's launchpad for a career that has proven utterly amazing, while also galvanizing South Korea to continue the search. And while the crime was eventually solved, Bong's film so vividly captures the ultimate sense of loss and pain the murders left behind.
5 out of 5 stars.