Memoir of a Murderer asks us to step inside the mind of someone who is losing his memory, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease. The movie opens with a scene focusing on the face of a gaunt and aged-looking Sol Kyung-gu as single dad Kim Byung-soo. As we watch, his face begins to twitch. At first the tic is an almost imperceptible blink of his left eye, and it gradually takes over the whole of the left side of his face. Clearly this is a man who is losing more than his memory.
The knowledge that you are gradually forgetting your past – all those experiences that make you up as a person – and also losing your short-term memory and thus your ability to relate to the world with any coherence, must be terrifying. Byung-soo knows that his mind is falling apart and that he will become ever more dependent on others to look after him. “I don’t want you to have to change my diapers” he says to his daughter in an early scene in the film. All this stress and trauma is reflected in those opening shots.
In a voice-over in another early scene, Byung-soo says that his memory comes and goes, flickering on and off like traffic lights. If this was the simile used in the original script that is surely inappropriate. Traffic lights change with predictable regularity, and one feature of Byung-soo’s advancing dementia is that it is increasingly unpredictable. One day he cannot remember the name of his long-time buddy, the next he is completely lucid as if nothing is wrong at all.
Realising what it is that his is losing, he is recording his longer-term memories before they slip away for good. We look over his shoulder has he types his life story into his PC and we read his backstory as he writes it. He can return to his memoir in later life to remind himself of who he is. For shorter term necessities he dictates aide-memoires into a recording device which he can later play back to remind himself what he had for lunch.
The diary and the dictating machine are props that help him sustain himself: without them he cannot be sure what has happened; whether what he thought he experienced yesterday or several years ago was fact or imagination. He needs them to function as a person.
Now let’s introduce some further uncertainty about what is real and what is not: what happens if you then realise (maybe in a brief moment of lucidity) that someone can delete or record over your voice memos, or edit the memoir on your computer? How can you be certain of what you thought had happened; and how can you therefore navigate the future? All this is material for a pretty meaty and satisfying psychological thriller on its own. Now let’s stir it up a bit more.
Not only does Byung-soo suffer from these neurological scars, the result of a car accident seventeen years ago. But we learn that he is also psychologically scarred as a result of physical abuse as a child by his father, abuse that tipped him over the edge so that not only did he kill his father but also, later, others whom he saw as deserving. For, as you might have guessed from the title of the movie (Kim Young-ha’s book which this movie adapts is usually rendered in English as A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization), the central character of the film is a former serial killer.
His daughter cares for him, with some humour, occasionally bringing him a takeaway lunch to his animal welfare shop where he still (just) manages to continue his veterinary practice. His daughter is a physical prop to him in daily life just as his diary and voice recorder are props to his memory. But then his daughter is threatened by a new serial killer in town, who begins to stalk her when he realises the potential threat from Byung-soo. Byung-soo has to gather his wits to try to prove the identity of the serial killer to a highly sceptical local police force (Oh Dal-su as Byung-soo’s cop buddy always brings a nice homely feeling to the scenes he’s in) as well as protect his daughter from the killer’s clutches. Not an easy task when you only have moments of lucidity and the deductions you made yesterday may not be remembered today.
As you might expect from Won Shin-yeon, the director of Seven Days, in which Kim Yun-jin also does a lot of running around to save her daughter before it’s too late, there’s a lot of running around in this movie too. The final showdown is suitably violent, though I’m not sure that it added much to the plot that we discover that not only Byung-soo but the younger killer too has his own very specific trauma.
If all this sounds very intense, there are brief moments of levity. Like the Alzheimer suffering Mi-ja in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, Byung-soo goes to poetry classes in an attempt to arrest his mental decline: the excruciatingly larger-than-life teacher and the unfortunate and voracious fellow-student take his all-to-literal autobiographical compositions as metaphorical; while Byung-soo himself, though seemingly lacking a sense of humour, confesses he does have one – it’s just that his reactions are rather delayed.
Watched purely as an actioner / thriller, this movie stands on its own two feet. What makes the story much more interesting is its examination of the limitations of memory, asking us questions about how we can be sure about what we know and who we are. Director Won unsettles us a number of times by filming a scene which we later see from a different perspective leading us, like Byung-soo, to begin to doubt the evidence of our own lived experience and memory. Add to that a brief dalliance with questions of whether there is moral difference between killing for pleasure and killing people who “deserved” it, and we have a movie that can be enjoyed on many different levels, with Sol Kyung-gu highly watchable throughout. I hope the novel gets an English translation soon.
Won Shin-yeon (원신연) Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, 2017)
Memoir of a Murderer screened as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival