The story follows three cops — inept, provincial detective Park (Song Kang-ho), his hotheaded and violent partner Cho (Kim Roe-ha) and Seoul-trained, levelheaded pro Seo (Kim Sang-kyung) — as they investigate the grisly rapes and ritualistic killings of local women in small-town South Korea in 1986. That these men are hilariously mismatched is evident from the get-go: Arriving in town and asking for directions from a woman on the same road where one murder was committed, Seo immediately gets grabbed by Park, who thinks he’s a suspect and beats him silly.
As the cops’ differing methods and attitudes clash, Bong shifts strikingly between tones, whipsawing the viewer. Initially, Park is a buffoon with an outsized sense of self-regard; he foolishly claims he can take one look at a suspect and determine if they’re guilty, an ability which is disproven over and over again. He and Cho abuse their suspects to a degree that’s almost comical; Bong is a master of showing us something awful and then daring us to laugh. Seo, meanwhile, does things the “right” way, via careful analysis and reason. “Documents never lie,” he’s fond of saying. These approaches will change over the course of the film, sometimes in tragic ways.
The movie itself transforms, too: As the loose ends and the innocent suspects pile up, the comedy of errors becomes a drama of terrors. At the end of each failure, after all, is another dead woman. And while Bong shoots his suspense scenes with disturbing precision — on a big screen, you’ll be better able to appreciate his use of deep focus and shadow — he is not without compassion. He makes you feel the characters’ fear — both the sharp dread of what’s next and the blunt, uncontainable pain of memory.
But he’s also got his eye on a broader, harder-to-define trauma: TV screens show turmoil on the streets; the cops get reports of protests being suppressed; at one point, they’re unable to go after the murderer because all their backup is off beating up pro-democracy activists. Civil defense drills are commonplace. In the film’s most striking, heartbreaking shot, we see a murder being committed in a forest while, in the background, nearby houses’ lights go off one by one, blacking out as part of a crisis preparation exercise. It’s as if a nation in fear is turning its back on those who are most vulnerable. (This re-release, by the way, is alarmingly well-timed.)
How the hell does a film this tonally out there, with characters this lunkheaded and at times even cruel and hateful, manage to be so indescribably moving? Slowly, Bong makes the critical connection between these people and the repressive society they live in — one where violence is commonplace and where the very nature of reality is constantly in dispute. Toward the end, the questions being asked of witnesses and suspects start to feel more existential than specific — as if, as the cops get closer and closer to the facts, the less certain everything becomes. By the time the spellbinding and mysterious final shot rolls around, we’re left with this thought, the sad, mad truth of an authoritarian world: Nobody’s innocent, and everybody’s a victim.