Cinema Psycho

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Memento Mori (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 26, 2005

Directed and written by Tae-Yong Kim, Kyu-Dong Min/starring Min-sum Kim, Yeh-jin Park, Young-jin Lee/Tartan Asia Extreme

The discovery of a secret diary causes turmoil at a Korean all-girls’ school, leading to supernatural occurrences.

If you’re a fan of Asian films at all, you have to respect what Tartan USA is doing with their Asia Extreme DVD line. Rather than focus on the more heavily hyped genre films coming out of Asian countries, they’ve prospered by mostly picking up more obscure cult items and overlooked gems and giving them strong pushes upon their release. Such is the case with this film, a 1999 South Korean psychodrama that only played film festivals in America until its recent DVD release. It’s long overdue.

To be sure, one can easily see why Memento Mori wasn’t an obvious pickup, even with the voracious appetite for Asian horror these last few years. This is hardly your typical “girl ghost gets revenge on her classmates” movie. The filmmakers defy expectations in just about every possible way, and the result is an exceedingly odd but fascinating piece of work.

The story begins when young, naïve schoolgirl Min-ah (Kim), after apparently spending the night sleeping in the forest, discovers a “shared diary” written by two of her classmates, feminine Hyo-shin (Park), and slightly tomboyish Shi-eun (Lee). The diary is mostly full of pictures, drawings and hidden coded messages, but it’s clearly the work of two people deeply in love. When word of this taboo relationship gets around the strict all-girls’ school they attend, the proverbial shit starts to hit the fan, leading to the suicide of one of the girls. After some strange things happen around the school, Min-ah suspects that the girl’s spirit may be haunting the place and she goes all Veronica to find out the truth of their relationship, using the diary as a starting point to investigate what really happened and why.

Rest assured, nothing in Memento Mori is as conventional as that description. Much of the story is told in flashbacks and dream sequences, with Min-ah discovering most of the evidence purely by accident. It’s also close to an hour before anything even vaguely “scary” happens. Until that point, the film works as a vivid, sharply observed teenage drama, focusing on the tenderness and purity of the girls’ love and the cruelty and derision it provokes from their classmates. Not that they were particularly kind to one another before – if this film proves anything, it’s that young girls can be just as harsh and mean-spirited towards each other as teenage boys are. They make the Mean Girls look like Mildly Annoyed Girls.

But to be fair, their casual cruelty seems like their only respite from a regimented, clinical and deadly dull school system that treats them like cattle. These girls seem to literally have nothing more interesting to do than tear each other apart, verbally and physically. While this is never explicitly stated, it seems like much of their behavior, both positive and negative, rises from sheer boredom and desperation. They don’t have anything else to focus on besides each other.

It’s no wonder that they start to collectively freak out when an already tense situation blows up so dramatically. Paranoia runs wild as the girls suspect it may have been murder, not suicide, and single out someone in particular as the potential killer. Various secrets are revealed, including those of Mr. Goh, their teacher and the only male presence in their lives. As Min-ah gets closer to the truth, the intensity starts to gradually ratchet up until practically the whole school is going batshit crazy.

Sadly, it’s actually a little bit disappointing when the ghost finally appears and starts wreaking havoc. Compared to the brutal viciousness of the girls and the coldly numb atmosphere of the school, the haunting stuff seems a bit silly and overstated. It’s kind of an anticlimax really, almost as if the filmmakers suddenly realized that they were supposed to be making a horror movie and threw in everything but the kitchen sink to make up for the lack of scares early on. The problem is, no amount of hokey ghost-story stuff can possibly be more frightening than watching kids inflict pain on each other.

I have to wonder if the story wouldn’t have been more effective if there really was no ghost, and the movie instead ended with the girls attacking each other, panic-stricken over the possibility of a murderer in their midst. Of course that’s not the movie we have, and what we’ve got is sufficiently fascinating if uneven. Even if it’s only a horror movie in the loosest sense of the word, Memento Mori is chilling stuff. This isn’t a movie for gorehounds or body-counters, and those seeking an exploitative treatment of the lesbian relationship will be severely disappointed. Instead, this is a movie that knows where true horror comes from – the things that people do to each other in everyday life. No cheap scares can possibly be more horrific than that.

Thanks to Tartan Asia Extreme for the screener copy.

***1/2   4/26/05

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