It's not very often that a movie stumbles through its first hour and makes a full recovery, but that's what happens in "Memories of Murder," a 2003 detective thriller based on South Korea's first (and still unsolved) serial killer case from 1986. What seems like a meandering comedy of police ineptitude eventually tightens into a gripping character study that defies genre conventions.
When the body of a young woman is found in a rural drainage ditch, local detective Park (Song Kang-ho) is out of his depth with a chaotic crime scene, an incompetent forensics team and a colleague who'd rather beat innocent suspects into submission than track down the actual killer. Park becomes resentful when he's partnered with a smarter detective from Seoul (Kim Sang-kyung), but as the body count rises and the killer's pattern emerges, the unlikely duo mutually benefit from their differing styles, even as the killer's identity remains unknown.
As directed by Bong Joon-ho, "Memories of Murder" achieves an unlikely but ultimately successful blend of blunt-force comedy and desperate investigation, and the killer's elusiveness (following a string of likely suspects that don't pan out) gives the film a nerve-racking jolt of adrenaline.
The film's riveting final act more than justifies the slow build in getting there, and a present-day coda gives added kick to the film's tantalizing mystery.