Director: Won Shin-yun
Cast: Sul Kyung-gu, Kim Nam-gil, Kim Seol-hyun, Oh Dal-su, Shin Ki-joon, Hwang Seok-jeong, Gil Hae-yeon, Kim Han-joon, Kim Dong-hee, Kim Jung-young
Running Time: 128 min.
By Paul Bramhall
There’s been many variations on the serial killer trope in Korea, often framed within a variety of genres. From the horror of Tell Me Something, to the mystery of Memories of Murder, to the visceral thrills of I Saw the Devil. Director Won Shin-yun’s latest delivers yet another variant on the serial killer theme, but this time with a decidedly unique twist. In Memoir of a Murderer (not to be confused with Memoirs of a Murderer, the Japanese remake of Confession of Murder) one of the most recognizable faces of the Korean wave, Sul Kyung-gu, looks virtually unrecognizable as an aged veterinarian suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. However Kyung-gu hides a dark secret – 20 years ago he used to be a serial killer, killing based on the act of “obligatory murder”, an expression he coins for those who deserve to die, and he’s concerned that his fading memory may unravel his past misdemeanours.
It’s an intriguing premise, and one that Shin-yun adapts from a popular 2013 novel by Kim Young-ha. While Kyung-gu’s inconsistent memory forms the crux of the tale, the plot which is provided as a framework develops into a classic tale of cat and mouse (although which one of them has Alzheimer’s is constantly up for questioning). There’s been a pair of high-school girl murders in town recently, and the public are beginning to question if a serial killer is on the loose, in a plot device that strongly echoes Memories of Murder (there’s also a shot involving a tunnel which will invoke memories, no pun intended, of Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 classic). While driving down a fog covered road, Kyung-gu collides with a stationery vehicle, and when he gets out of his car, he finds the trunk of the other vehicle open, revealing a carcass wrapped in plastic, dripping blood onto the road.
The driver of the other vehicle is played by Kim Nam-gil, who insists the carcass is that of a dear. However as the pair exchange words, Kyung-gu’s instincts tell him otherwise – the man in front of him is also a serial killer, and he makes the decision to bring him to justice. A spanner is thrown in the works though when it turns out Nam-gil is actually a cop, and Kyung-gu is left to figure out how an old man with Alzheimer’s, can convince the authorities that one of their own is responsible for the recent murders. It’s a fascinating premise, and one that plays out as a kind of Memento meets Memories of Murder hybrid, as we’re pulled into a world where the reality of everything is questionable, and characters motives aren’t to be trusted.
As Memoir of a Murderer’s anchor, Kyung-gu is fantastic. An actor who’s been in some of the most highly regarded movies of the K-wave, leading roles in the likes of Peppermint Candy, Public Enemy, and Silmido cemented his reputation. The post 2010-era hasn’t been so kind, with duds like The Spy and My Dictator doing their best to stain his filmography. However in 2016 Kyung-gu seems to be back in business, with a strong role both here, and in the prison thriller The Merciless. Nam-gil on the other hand is very much an actor that relies on a strong director to draw a good performance out of him, and while he found one in the likes of Oh Seung-wook for The Shameless, here he’s not so lucky. Coming across as neither menacing nor particularly creepy, his performance unintentionally blurs what exactly we as an audience are supposed to believe.
In fairness though, the script is as much of an issue as Nam-gil’s performance. The tale is told from the perspective (and largely narrated by) of Kyung-gu, and the more the plot develops, the more it becomes clear that he’s not a reliable narrator. His Alzheimer’s is not only making him forget things, but it’s also distorting his memory of how events happened and who was involved. It takes a highly skilled hand to craft such a complex tale in which everything is questionable, however the weight of the narrative soon has both Shin-yun and his co-writer Hwang Jo-yoon (who notably co-wrote Oldboy with Park Chan-wook) becoming lost in their own tangled web.
The main issue is that the narrative doesn’t set any rules for us to follow, which quickly goes from intriguing to frustrating before the movie is even half way through. There are essentially two possible scenarios for the audience to decipher – is Kyung-gu’s Alzheimer’s leading him to believe that Nam-gil is the serial killer, when in fact it’s actually himself, he’s just unable to recall his own murders? Or is Nam-gil a serial killer, who sees Kyung-gu as a threat, and decides to try and get rid of him by going through his daughter? By taking Kyung-gu’s perspective there are certain revelations that deliver the intended shock moment, however the script on more than one occasion betrays itself, by doubling back on the revelation and hinting that the original version of events may be true after all.
The first time it happens it seems like smart scripting, but when it happens again it increasingly begins to feel like the story is confusing itself. This feeling is confounded when the narrative breaks away from Kyung-gu’s perspective, however still seems to portray characters personalities based on his perceptions. A movie like Memento works so well because, even though the rules of the narrative aren’t clear while watching it, by the time it finishes an explanation is provided that makes everything make sense in retrospect, and even encourages a re-watch. That same explanation isn’t provided in Memoir of a Murderer, and the frustrating part is that even a re-watch would do little to unravel the mystery, as with no clear rules as to what’s real and what’s not, it’s a fruitless exercise.
It’s a shame, as there’s obviously a lot of potential behind the premise, and while the production values and lensing are up to par as has come to be expected from a Korean production, the execution ultimately lacks. Shin-yun has had an interesting career, starting off as a stuntman, he made his directorial debut with the 2005 horror movie The Wig, which he also wrote, and has flitted in and out of genres since then. His movie prior to Memoir of a Murderer was also his most successful, the Gong Yoo starring 2013 actioner The Suspect, and while Memoir of a Murderer is an ambitious step up from his previous efforts A to B chase flick, at least The Suspect maintained its coherency.
With that being said, as a showboat for Kyung-gu’s acting skills it certainly delivers, and for fans of the actor it’ll likely be welcomed. Memoir of a Murderer also stars Seolhyun as his daughter, a member of the K-pop group AOA. She notably had a small role in Yoo Ha’s Gangnam Blues, and here again proves to have a decent pair of acting chops. Of course no Korean movie in recent years would seemingly be complete without an appearance from Oh Dal-soo, and sure enough he pops up in Memoir of a Murderer clocking in his third movie of 2016 (the others being Tunnel and Master), here as the local cop. At this point I almost feel like I should deduct a point for any Korean movie made in the last 5 years that doesn’t feature Oh Dal-soo.
In the end Memoir of a Murderer is one of those movies that you really want to love, but is let down by a muddled end product and a script that tangles itself up so much, it forgets that at some point, has to untangle itself. In the closing scene a character tells us that memory can’t be trusted, which is a running theme throughout, however its inclusion seems to indicate that Shin-yun considers the line to be a revelation to the audience, when really what we needed is an explanation. As a result, the end feels like more of an insult than the intended “a-ha!” moment. Kyung-gu may play a character slowly forgetting his life, but the saddest part is, Shin-yun is a director that’s forgotten to deliver on his own potential.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5.5/10