BFI London Film Festival: Memoir of a Murderer

Memoir of a Murderer
Memoir of a Murderer (Sal-in-ja-eu ki-eok-beob)
Directed by Won Shin-yun
Starring Sul Kyung-gu, Kim Nam-gil and Kim Seol-hyun
Screening at LFF October 9th, 10th, 2017

by Richard Hamer

Byung-su is a serial killer; or at least, he used to be. 17 years after his last killing, and suffering from severe dementia, he is a haunted man, living uncertainly between his present life with daughter Eun-hee and his murderous past. When several girls Eun-hee’s age are found dead, Byung-su’s grip on his memory loosens further: Can he catch the killer before his daughter comes to harm, or is he the killer? What happens in those moments when the memory fades, and time seems to skip? Where does he go?

So runs the premise of Memoir of a Murderer, a dark Korean thriller that practically begs lazy journalists to label it as the ‘new Memento’. And in many ways, the comparison holds: The set-up certainly bears similarities, and both share – despite the seriousness of the subject matter – that comic edge that comes from a thriller where your protagonist might forget who they’re chasing halfway through a chase.

But largely, it’s its own beast: Memoir of a Murderer is a far more meandering piece, its every scene open to question. The order of events, whether some scenes, or indeed entire characters are hallucinations: Byung-su is the most unreliable of narrators, in an investigation that seems to get further from the truth the closer it gets to the finish. And this is actually the film’s chief criticism, and one that makes you appreciate anew the genius of Memento: That was a movie incredibly tidy in its storytelling, a fact that it exploited in a last-minute twist that caused you to question all that came before. Memoir of a Murderer, on the other hand, twists too much; when everything is in doubt, there is no-one for the audience to root for, no mystery to piece together. Left outside the story, the overriding feeling is that you are just watching a bunch of stuff. In its latter stages, Memoir of a Murderer even starts to drag: You become immune to its innumerable plot-twists, impossible to trick when you already assume everything is a trick.

There is still much to like: That impeccable sense of style and pitch-black humour you’d expect from a big-budget Korean thriller is present and correct, and all the performances – especially Kyoung-gu Sul as Byung-su – are highly watchable. Yet overall, Memoir of a Murderer is a disappointment: A well-made thriller, too in love with its own complexity. A stylish ride, but one where – ironically – you’ll struggle to remember the details.


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