Byeong-soo (played by Sol Kyung-gu) is an unreliable narrator. Well, OK, literally in the context of "Memoir of a Murderer" he's an aging veterinarian who suffers from increasingly worsening symptoms of dementia. This has forced Byeong-soo to give up on his side gig of being a serial killer. That's where the unreliable narrator aspect becomes interesting. Is Byeong-soo actually a serial killer, or is the elaborate diary of his past murderous deeds just wish fulfillment about what he feels like he should have done to all those horrible people who clearly deserved to die?
The interpretation is further complicated by the appearance of Tae-joo (played by Kim Nam-gil), who Byeong-soo quickly decides is also a serial killer. So from that point, in addition to the ambiguity of who or what Byeong-soo really is, we're also left to wonder- is Tae-joo just a mildly creepy cop who is bemused by Byeong-soo's eccentric quirks? Or is he indeed a fellow serial killer who likes to hang out with Byeong-soo even though the older man is a dangerous wild card?
Both interpretations require "Memoir of a Murderer" explain a whole lot of inconsistencies in Tae-joo's behavior. And without spoiling which one is true, I can tell you that "Memoir of a Murderer" completely fails to do any such thing. The main issue is just presentation in the context of the premise. Nothing that Byeong-soo says or does has to make sense, because the dementia is such that neither we nor he have any idea which memories are real absent objective evidence.
What director Won Shin-yun fails to realize is that any scene where Byeong-soo is not present counts as objective evidence. So when similar storytelling inconsistencies pop up in scenes where, say, Tae-joo is talking to Byeong-soo's daughter Eun-hee (played by Seolhyun), it ruins any sort of illusion that the plot has internal consistency. Characters who are not Byeong-soo and lack his dementia excuse should have a much better grasp of objective reality than he does, yet consistently make very stupid decisions.
A lot of these problems are also a matter of "Memoir of a Murderer" buying into romanticized serial killer tropes in general, rather than just trying to tell a mystery story via its fairly intriguing premise. Observe the early montage where Byeong-soo explains why he's a good serial killer, because his victims deserve it. Later on another character points out that this is a very stupid and arbitrary metric, since the victims of any given serial killer will have committed some sort of crime, what with all humans being inherently sinful and all.
But such potentially interesting challenges to Byeong-soo's conception of self are never seriously explored through "Memoir of a Murderer", leading to an odd situation where I neither pitied nor hated the old man. I'm hard-pressed to think of any time I felt any emotion for him at all. Could this be because Sol Kyung-gu's performance is rather weak, relying almost entirely on voiceovers to communicate what his character is thinking? Perhaps - but then again the base material itself just isn't very good.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Memoir of a Murderer""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Subscribe to HanCinema Pure to remove ads from the website (not for episode and movie videos) for US$0.99 monthly or US$7.99 yearly (you can cancel anytime). The first step is to be a member, please click here : Sign up, then a subscribe button will show up.