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Film / Memories of Murder

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Memories of Murder is a 2003 South Korean crime thriller drama film co-written and directed by Bong Joon-ho, based on the then-unsolved serial murders that took place in Hwaseong between 1986 and 1991.

The film follows two police detectives — Park Doo-Man (Song Kang-ho), a native of the small provincial town where the murders take place, and Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), a young detective from Seoul — in their investigation to track down and apprehend the killer. The case is far from simple, as multiple levels of incompetence conspire to obscure the truth, and as the bodies pile up, the resolve of all the officers becomes frayed.

As the film is Based on a True Story, much of the plot is a Foregone Conclusion, but it nevertheless contains a number of twists, so beware unmarked spoilers.

This film provides examples of:

  • 2 + Torture = 5: Played for Laughs when Park and Cho torture the man who was caught masturbating in the woods.
    Seo: Hey, are you the murderer?
    Suspect: Yes, I am.
    Seo: Shut up; no, you're not.
    Suspect: I'm pretty sure I am, though...
  • Anti-Hero: Detective Park and detective Cho, both of whom are willing to rough up suspects if it means getting a confession out of them.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Detectives Cho and Park fit these respective roles at the start of the film. However, while Park eventually matures into a more competent detective, Cho never loses his violent temper, which ends up costing him dearly.
  • Bat Deduction: Subverted. Various investigators make huge, cinematic leaps of circumstantial evidence that seem elegant but turn out totally wrong.
    • Park's first suspect is Baek, a mentally handicapped boy with physical deformities, who Park assumes murdered the first victim in a fit of vindictive rage after she rejected him due to his appearance. While a seemingly logical conclusion to jump to at first, Seo quickly proves Baek's innocence due to his physical frailty and meek nature making him an unlikely suspect, much to Park's embarrassment. Park also fails to pick up on Baek's confession actually pointing to him being a witness to the murder until it is far too late.
    • Park deduces that the killer must have had shaved pubes due to a lack of hair found at the scene, and spends a lot of time at a bath house checking out everyone's junk, to no avail.
    • An officer's observation that the murders always coincide with a certain song request made on rainy days becomes a major angle in the case, based on the cinematic but not particularly logical theory that the killer only operated in the rain and the song was the his pump up song for murder. This is also proven incorrect when the final murder takes place on a clear night.
  • Black Comedy: Comes out of the fact that it's about a serial killer who had not been found for almost two decades at the time.
  • Book Ends: The film starts and ends with a scene at the same corn field, as well as a shot of a character staring into the camera.
  • Bound and Gagged: All of the victims were gagged with their own bra or stockings.
  • Break the Haughty: Detective Park starts off as an arrogant, irreverent and buffoonish figure. Over the course of the film, the murders and numerous incidents surrounding the investigation take an enormous emotional toll on him, leaving him more subdued and deeply haunted even a decade later.
  • Bring My Red Jacket: The killer's victims tend to be women dressed in red, possibly because the killer has a fetish for the color or because of the sexy connotations of Lady in Red. Consequently, they suspect the second subject in part because he wears red underwear.
  • Character Development: Around the time the third suspect emerges, Park and Seo begin to change in personalities. The originally violent and instinctive Park becomes more patient and calculating when interrogating their suspect, while the normally calm and rational Seo becomes increasingly intense and vengeful.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Park's superior lights up after he finds out that the killer is loose and the police don't have enough manpower to stop him, meaning that he will kill again that night.
  • Cue the Rain: Justified in universe. The killer strikes when it rains and, so when they figure it out, the rain causes this dramatic reaction in everyone.
  • Dies Wide Open: All of the victims.
  • Distant Finale: A Time Skip from 1987 to 2003 reveals that Park has a family and has left the police force to sell juicers, but is still haunted by the unsolved murders.
  • Downer Ending: Cho's leg is amputated after a fight. Seo completely loses it after the case wears down on him. Park is shown to be haunted by the murders even years after they happened. The police's reputation with the public is completely destroyed and the culprit is never found. Made worse by the fact that it's Truth in Television.
  • Everybody Smokes: As the main characters are all cops, it should come as no surprise that smoking is frequent throughout the film. At one point while searching for leads, Seo nearly lights up at a middle school but finds his pack to be empty and throws it on the ground, highlighting how stressful the case is getting.
  • Failed Future Forecast: The film assumes that the killer would still be on the loose in 2003. But in September 2019, the prime suspect was identified via DNA evidence as Lee Choon-jae, who has been serving a life sentence in prison since 1994 for killing his sister-in-law in a similar fashion. Due to this, it would be impossible for the killer to still be at large.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Park and Seo eventually become this, despite being an Odd Couple too.
  • Flipping the Bird: Det. Park shows his fist, with his thumb stuck between the index and middle fingers, to some heckling kids. This is an offensive gesture roughly equivalent to the American raised middle finger.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The killer is never apprehended.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The film ends with Park looking directly at the camera, seemingly using his eye contact method to try to spot the killer in the audience.
  • Freudian Trio: The three detectives working on the case, with the Id, Ego, and Superego being Cho, Park, and Seo respectively.
  • From Bad to Worse: Begins with a murder, and escalates into a terrifying serial killer case that leaves everyone forever changed.
  • Funny Background Event: In one scene, while Park and Seo are having an argument in the foreground, Cho is making out with a hostess in the background, and the Chief is choking.
  • Gilligan Cut: While investigating the story about the murderer in the outhouse at the school, a schoolgirl suggests that Seo check them out for himself, with Seo replying that he doesn't have time. Cut to the next scene where he is checking out the school outhouses.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: The detectives try this with Kwang-ho, their first suspect. Park is nice and polite while Cho literally kicks Kwang-ho around. This is particularly disturbing as Kwang-ho is mentally challenged.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: The rain pours down as they find the last victim, after Seo let a suspect slip surveillance.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Detective Seo, who is originally calm and rational and disapproving of the Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique employed by Park and Cho, becomes more and more unstrung over the course of the film, as the body count piles up. He snaps when he loses a suspect whom he was keeping under surveillance, and a school girl he had previously spoken with gets killed. He's about to shoot the suspect when Park comes charging up, with the DNA report from America revealing that the suspect's sample doesn't match. Seo refuses to believe it—"this paper lies"—and tries to kill the suspect anyway. Park knocks his arm, saving the suspect's life.
  • Hidden Villain: Combined with The Faceless.
  • High-Altitude Interrogation: Done with the man they catch masturbating near a crime scene.
  • Hourglass Plot: Initially, Detective Park is violent, hasty and irrational in his work, while Detective Seo is organized and collected. By the end of the film, they have switched places near-completely.
  • Idiot Hero: While "hero" is stretching it, Park is this. He follows leads based on gossip and rumors, fails to collect the most basic of evidence and judges suspects guilty by looking into their eyes which is implied to be a sham by the way he identifies the second suspect.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: The last victim is a schoolgirl that Seo had struck up a certain friendship with. Seo takes personal responsibility for her death, enters something of a Heroic BSoD, and loses all professionalism, and is determined to take the killer out personally.
  • It's Personal: Upon seeing the schoolgirl he had befriended winding up as the latest victim of the killer, Seo abandons all reason and attempts to perform a vigilante execution on the man he believes to be the murderer.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Used liberally by the police, especially Cho. Though it doesn't help much.
  • Just a Flesh Wound: Averted. Cho gets stabbed in the leg by a plank of wood with a nail attached to it. We see him limping around afterwards, and eventually his shin has to be amputated.
  • Karaoke Box: The detectives unwind in one.
  • Karma Houdini: The killer, whoever he may have been, is never identified or apprehended.
  • Kick the Dog: Park and Cho repeatedly beating the mentally challenged Kwang-Ho certainly counts as this.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Detective Cho has a habit of drop-kicking his suspects. It is ironic that he ends up having his leg amputated.
  • The Legend of Chekhov: Zig-zagged. The local children have an urban legend saying the school outhouses are inhabited by a serial killer. The police learn about this early on in the film and ignore it, but later on, getting desperate to find the killer they're hunting for, they decide to take it seriously and investigate the toilets. They don't find a a murderer there, but they do find an important clue — a crying woman who lives above the toilets and turns out the be the killer's only surviving victim.
  • Match Cut: A pretty twisted one. The police are circled around a coroner's table, looking at the body of a murder victim. The film cuts to meat on a grill at a Korean barbecue restaurant.
  • Never the Obvious Suspect: Discovered by Seo, probably. He and Park pick up various creepy characters, and then he learns that the killer apparently looked no more sinister than he does at the end.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The police harass and brutalize Baek because his handicap makes him appear creepy to him. By the time they realize he's a witness, they've pushed him to the point of stabbing Cho, upon which he gets hit by a train.
  • Only Sane Man: Detective Seo tries to mount a reasonable investigation into the case, but has to put up with two bumbling partners and a mismanaged, under-equipped police force. However, the stresses of the case wear him down, and he's nearly driven to shoot a suspect who may or may not be the killer.
    • Shin, the detectives' supervisor, also counts as he's trying to keep the detectives focused on solving the case instead of bickering with each other.
  • Perp Sweating: See Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique above. It never works. The suspects only tell the police what they want to hear.
  • Phony Psychic: Park goes to a shaman to get supernatural help on the case, but she refuses to look at the suspects and just tries to sell him stuff. All she does is give him a "magic" paper that he is supposed to use to create an inkblot that will identify the killer. It obviously is of no help.
  • Porn Stash: The cops find the masturbator's stash hidden away in his home.
  • Police Are Useless: Park and Cho make no effort to actually find the killer effectively and spend most of their time beating coerced confessions out of anyone they have a bad vibe towards. Their superiors are mostly concerned with their reputation with the public. The government at one point sends a large police squadron to suppress a political riot rather than to find the killer. Seo seems to be the only one doing any actual police work. Though in the end, even he fails to apprehend the killer or save any people.
  • Police Brutality: It's implied by the political background of the film with South Korea as a military dictatorship that the police are more accustomed to beating and suppressing political dissidents than tracking down criminals.
  • Rabid Cop: A common theme of this film. Detective Park Doo-man and Detective Cho Yong-koo both brutally try to beat and torture confessions out of their suspects, one of whom was a mentally handicapped young man, and get very few results. They're contrasted with Detective Seo Tae-Yoon, who uses logic and reason in his investigation, but by the end of the movie, is driven to becoming almost as bad as them.
  • Race Against the Clock: Present throughout the film as the detectives eventually figure out that the next time it rains, the murderer will strike.
  • Rape as Drama: The murderer raped his victims before killing them.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Park insists the "confessions" he wrings from suspects need to be dramatic and clear enough to be believable.
    Park: It needs to be realistic, like in the movies.
  • Red Herring: All of the suspects. While they don't have a particularly good reason to suspect Kwang-Ho, circumstantial evidence and the narrative framing makes it seem like Byung-Soon and then Heyon-Gyu might be the killer, but this is proven wrong.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Who is the killer?
  • Rule of Three: There are three main suspects in the film. Kwang-Ho Baek, a mentally challenged boy who could not possibly be the murderer due to his physical deformities and imbalanced mind. Byung-Soon, a pervert who was caught jerking off at a crime scene who is a likely suspect but is cleared after examining a witness statement. And finally Heyon-Gyu who matches the physical description of the killer and only just moved to the area shortly before the killings began, making him very likely the culprit. Though even he is cleared at the end by a DNA analysis.
  • Sanity Slippage: Seo becomes increasingly unhinged and obsessed with the case, this culminates in him attempting to murder an innocent suspect.
  • Scenery Porn: There are many landscape shots of the Korean countryside.
  • Serial Killer: The main plot.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Detective Park, who claims that he can instinctively tell who's a bad guy.
  • The Smurfette Principle: The police department appears to have exactly one woman on the team. Notably, although she's stated to be a police officer too, everyone else seems to treat her more as the coffee lady.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The superstitious and impulsive Park frequently butts heads with the logical and evidence based Seo and they argue and fight frequently through the story. Though they seem to reach something of an understanding upon discovering the third suspect.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: In the end, a young girl describes a man who is more than likely the killer, and says that he looked "ordinary" and had a "normal" face. This suggests even further that the handsome Hyeon-gyu Park really was innocent.
  • Toilet Horror: The local school has a story about a murderer who lives in the outhouse, which gets repeated by Byung-Soon in his confession, where he describes a dream about killing the women and then waking up inside the latrine.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: The film ends with the case being this, and it was not resolved until September 2019.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Although compared to the Hollywood standards of anything "based on a true story", it's almost a documentary.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Seo and Park's supervisor pukes into a bucket at a party.
  • Vomiting Cop: At the last murder scene, there's a shot of an officer extra vomiting on the side of the scene.
  • Workaholic: Seo. He is shown to stay overtime at the police station in order to look over some documents surrounding the case and unlike the other detectives, his mind is occupied about the case even during his downtime.
  • Would Hurt a Child: A schoolgirl that the investigators befriend sadly also ends up a victim of the serial killer. In Real Life, a 14-year-old girl was indeed one of the Hwaesong victims, but otherwise she was the only minor confirmed to be a victim.