Hello everyone, I’m still in a bit of a drama slump these days, so I decided to catch up on a few films that came out this year. After conducting a twitter poll, Memoir of a Murderer came out on top. I’ve actually been dying to watch this movie for a long time now, so thankfully the votes lined up with my own interests! You can find my full review of the film below.
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Memoir of a Murderer is an action thriller film adapted from a bestselling fiction novel of the same name, written by author Kim Young Ha.
Byung Soo (Sol Kyung Gu), a retired serial killer who hasn’t murdered in 17 years, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He lives with his grown daughter, Eun Hee (Seol Hyun), who helps take care of him in his old age and waning health. After getting in a car collision with a young police officer named Tae Joo (Kim Nam Gil), Byung Soo notices blood dripping from the trunk of the man’s car. He believes the blood to be human blood, and deduces that Tae Joo is a killer. When his daughter Eun Hee begins dating this very same man, Byung Soo becomes determined to retain his memory in order to save his daughter. However, his plan to kill Tae Joo proves more challenging than initially thought, as his memories begin to fade and fuse, muddying the waters of what he knows and believes to be true.
Memoir of a Murderer boasts a unique and intriguing premise, but somehow manages to lose control of the reigns about half-way through the watch. A visual feast, the film is flooded with scenes of snowy woodlands and bamboo groves; but also captivates with its darkened color palate and collection of polished and thoughtful shots. Simply put, the cinematography felt impressive, slick, and picturesque.
Veteran actor Sol Kyung Gu delivers an enthralling, dynamic performance as a retired murderer-turned-father, plagued with Alzheimer’s, determined to protect his daughter from her serial killer boyfriend. The grit and emotional gravitas Kyung Gu brings to the screen is captivating, convincing, and unrivaled by his fellow cast mates. Kyung Gu is easily the backbone of this film, and the only reason I remained seated and glued to the screen. While the story flounders in several areas, Kyung Gu never wavers, and confidently delivers a consistent, commendable performance from beginning to end.
Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments came from actor Kim Nam Gil, who played serial killer cop, Min Tae Joo. In his defense, the wardrobe department’s choice to dress him in Hot Topic sale rack leftovers definitely put a crimp in any sort of villain vibes he had hopes of dishing out. It practically screamed ‘I’m the killer!,’ and therefore I was already set up to find him disingenuous from the start. However, Nam Gil’s incapacity to fully commit to those ominous and menacing characteristics, which set a villain apart and catapult them into fearsome territory, ultimately hindered his effectiveness. So too did his complete disregard for the other half of his role, a young cop and boyfriend. Had he made efforts to express himself as a natural, humane and authentic individual during these scenes, and then transitioned into the true creep and psychopath he was supposed to be in the others, the abrupt and jarring difference between behaviors alone would have served him well as a performer, and his character would have felt a thousand times more terrifying. On the whole, his presence felt bland, muted, and uninspired. It was almost as if he wasn’t confident enough to take the role and run with it, which made for a severely missed opportunity.
Rounding out the cast was idol-turned actress Seolhyun and veteran actor Oh Dal Soo. Considering that I was expecting the worst, Seolhyun performed better than the mess I had gloomily envisioned. The performance was—by no means—oscar worthy, but she managed to get the job done with minimal flaws and put forth enough emotion for me to believe her pitiful predicament as the suffering Eun Hee. Dal Soo played a senior detective and longtime friend of Byung Soo. His character’s presence was minimal; merely used for a bit of filler and comic relief; and in my book, a waste of his talents.
As the film progressed, the unfortunate, but undeniable reality that my desire to enjoy the production was outweighing my genuine affinity for it, became all the more evident. While several elements of the film in themselves were innovative and praiseworthy, others were not, and the film as a whole failed to meet my expectations. Some of the conceptualizations struggled to come through in a coherent manner on screen. While the ideas were presumably favorable, their execution felt underwhelming and not entirely logical. The arresting thriller I anticipated occasionally crossed the threshold into sluggish territory, and I found myself struggling to stay engaged whenever Sol Kyung Gu left the screen.
One of the bigger philosophical questions posed by the film is whether or not empathy for a retired serial killer is appropriate if an abusive childhood is the underlying cause, and if the killer was purging the world of what he considered “bad people.” This question further develops into a whole web of related uncertainties as the movie evolves: ” Does a father’s love and determination to protect his daughter outweigh or excuse his serial killer past? Where do we draw the line when it comes to empathy? Do abuse or any other childhood traumas justify becoming a killer, or even lessen the guilt one should have for their wrongful actions? Is it wrong to feel more empathy for Byung Soo than we do for Tae Joo? ” These are just a few controversial problems the movie forces us to confront.
The film does an excellent job of expressing the immense psychological pain, frustration and hardship Alzheimer’s inflicts on both the patient and their family. As his human mind deteriorates, it becomes increasingly more difficult for Byung Soo to decipher the difference between his own actions and Tae Joo’s, while the ever-growing fear of forgetting his own daughter entirely, haunts his conscience. The story unfolds in a complex and disorienting fashion, with various scenes unfurling multiple times, until the waters are so muddied, you cannot discern which sequence of events is reliable. Just when you think you’ve uncovered the truth, Byung Soo’s recollections prove faulty, and you begin to realize that he is perhaps losing more than just his memory, but his sanity as well. In this aspect, I thought the film was very clever, in that it almost mimicked what Alzheimer’s feels like to the sufferer—and we—as audience members, got to experience a part of that in the viewing process.
“My head is dying. It’s wrinkling like a walnut, and it’s full of holes. And I keep forgetting.”
And yet, while I enjoy when the construct of a film embodies its themes, I think this film took things too far to the point where the train swerved off the tracks. This became particularly evident by the finale, where we’re presented with three different outcomes: a realistic scene where a prosecutor questions Byung Soo in a (prison?) infirmary; a more hopeful scene with Eun Hee visiting Byung Soo at a senior home; and a grim final scene (which mimics the opening scene), where Byung Soo believes Tae Joo is still alive. By leaving the ending as a befuddled mess, the film fails to bring the story to completion, and instead only adds yet another unwanted layer of unnecessary complication into the mix. As a consequence, the finale delivers an abstruse disappointment in place of the clear cut ending deserved.
Memoir of a Murderer‘s strengths lie in the phenomenal cinematography, Sol Kyung Gu’s stirring performance, and the film’s ability to entertain if viewed purely as a thriller. However, watching the film in search of any hidden meaning or profound message would prove worthless, as it’s merely a hollow story with a collection of tropes and clichés that lead to nowhere. While the attempt was admirable, the film’s failure to flesh out its own message and remain consistent, ultimately leads to its underwhelming nature. In the end, the production turned out to be a contrived and convoluted mess, albeit beautifully shot and well led by Sol Kyung Gu, but not much else.
Have you watched Memoir of a Murderer? What did you think of the film? If you haven’t already, you can check out the trailer here.