J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Memoir of a Murderer: Dementia vs. Psychosis

Kim Byung-su has some lethal muscle memories. He is a former serial killer, mostly in the Dexter tradition of only killing bad guys. He stopped after suffering serious brain trauma seventeen years ago that has finally evolved into full-fledged dementia. Min Tae-ju is a fellow serial killer and also a cop. Their cat-and-mouse game takes some especially dark turns in Won Shin-yun’s Memoir of a Murderer (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Kim’s first victim was his abusive father. Others like him soon followed. Eventually, Kim became a veterinarian, giving him access to livestock-grade tranquilizers. He still remembers the most important things about himself: he is a killer, but he loves his grown daughter Eun-hee. One fateful day, he rear-ends Min on a lonely stretch of highway, spying a glimpse of some kind of bloody mess in his trunk. Kim immediately recognizes Min is a fellow killer and vice versa.

Min walks away, assuming they will extend each other the serial killer’s professional courtesy, but because the “Maiden Killer’s” victims all match his daughter’s profile, Kim phones in an anonymous tip. Being a cop from the next city over, Min quickly traces it back to Kim. To strike at the old killer’s weakest point, Min starts romancing Eun-hee. Of course, Kim has trouble remembering any of this. He leaves himself audio memos and starts writing the titular confessional for his future reference. Nevertheless, there will be times he will suspect he is actually the Maiden Killer.

The South Korean film industry does two things really well: sentimental tragedies and serial killer thrillers. Memoir is obviously the latter, with a thimble-full of the former mixed in for extra added angst. It is a darkly potent concoction. Basically, it is like a Memento-like twist on the psycho killer genre that never feels as exploitative as it sounds

Seol Kyung-gu is the critical piece that makes it all work. As Kim, his is convincingly paranoid, dementia-addled, guilt-ridden, and still pretty darn scary. He really is not like any other serial killer you have seen before. In contrast, you have seen plenty like Kim Nam-gil’s banally handsome Min, but he is still serviceably creepy and clammy. Former K-pop star Kim Seol-hyun is cute like you would expect, but she also looks credibly freaked out as she starts to suspect one or more of the psychopaths surrounding her. Ever reliably serving as an everyman anchor, prolific character actor Oh Dal-su does his thing as the compassionate small-town police chief.

Won and screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon borrow elements from scores of films, like Confession of Murder, Memories of Murder, and Blood and Ties, but like productive magpies, they weave them into something new and formidable. It all looks darkly eerie thanks to cinematographer Choi Young-hwan’s evocative lensing. For small-town creepiness, it is a much better bet than It this week. Highly recommended for fans of psychological thrillers that border on horror, Memoir of a Murderer opens today (9/8) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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