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[Herald Review] ‘Memoir of a Murderer’ is tiring, predictable tale

Film’s highlight is actor Seol Kyung-gu laboring onscreen as an elderly, Alzheimer-ridden former serial killer

How many more stories of gruesome serial killings and smiling psychopathic murderers are left to tell in Korean cinema? “Memoir of a Murderer,” as is evident from the title, is yet another film that presents a killer as its lead. Unfortunately, it neither recounts a probing memoir nor delivers the terror of murder.

It opens with an emaciated elderly man trudging along an empty railroad track. The air around him is as misty as his foggy memory -- he cannot remember where he is or what he is doing.

The man is Byung-soo, played by Sol Kyung-gu (“The Merciless,” 2017), a serial killer who is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Byung-soo lives in a small Jeju town with his unsuspecting daughter Eun-hee, played by K-pop singer-turned-actress Seolhyun (“Gangnam Blues,” 2015), who dutifully cares for him and seems without a care in the world.

“My memory is gone but my hand remembers the habit of murder,” Byung-soo writes in his diary on his laptop. The film has been rendered into a screenplay based on Kim Young-ha’s novel of the same title, and such lines that have been awkwardly adopted from the original work permeate the film. The biggest distraction is the ongoing narration voiced by Seol that redundantly explains everything that is already evident onscreen.

Seol Kyung-gu stars in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)
Seol Kyung-gu stars in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)

Byung-soo also keeps an audio journal on a voice recorder to aid his memory.

A flashback provides us with some back story into his state. Having suffered intense abuse as a child, his rage has motivated him to “cleanse” the world of “people who are like trash.”

Now ill and advanced in age, Byung-soo no longer kills, but spends his days taking walks at a small bamboo forest he bought -- and where he buried his numerous victims -- and attending poetry lessons at a neighborhood community center. On his way home from a class, again on a misty Jeju road, Byung-soo’s car suffers a minor collision. The offender is Tae-joo, played by Kim Nam-gil (“One Day,” 2017), a man who has a bloody carcass in the trunk of his vehicle and chilling eyes -- “eyes like mine,” eyes of a killer, Byung-soo instinctively feels. 

“Just as I recognized him, he must have recognized me,” Byung-soo records in his diary. The two killers subsequently struggle to out each other and conceal their own identities.

From left: Seolhyun and Seol Kyung-gu star in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)
From left: Seolhyun and Seol Kyung-gu star in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)

The storytelling follows Byung-soo’s stream of consciousness, but is less than thrilling with no core idea and distractingly incoherent plot devices. Byung-soo’s brain, for example, selectively and conveniently wavers between forgetting his bloodstained past and remembering important facts. The film grazes the notion of justice -- does Byung-soo deserve only bad things, or does his love for his daughter redeem him? -- but wraps up with a predictable conclusion.

Kim Nam-gil stars in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)
Kim Nam-gil stars in “Memoirs of a Murderer” (Showbox)

What’s left is Sol’s laborious performance as the film’s sole highlight. Few portray the agony and wretchedness of existence better than the veteran actor and here, the strain is magnified. Sol, 50, previously told reporters that he had decided to “actually age 20 more years” for his character because he felt fake wrinkles were a hindrance to conveying emotions. He wasn’t lying -- Sol cheats his age onscreen with minimal help from makeup, his pupils seeming to have darkened with disillusion and time, his posture slumped by the weight of a secret. But Sol fights a losing battle in a film that has much to say and very little to deliver.

The film, directed by Won Shin-yun and distributed by Showbox, hits local theaters in September.

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)


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