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DIRECTED BY: Kim Tae-yong, Min Kyu-dong
FEATURING: Kim Gyu-ri, Park Ye-jin, Lee Young-jin, Gong Hyo-jin, Baek Jong-hak
PLOT: When Min-ah finds a diary written by two of her classmates, she is pulled into their story of romance, rejection, and retribution.
COMMENTS: From the first frame of the Korean horror/romance Memento Mori, we are immersed in girls’ school culture: imagine Lord of the Flies in a Michaels arts and crafts store. The entire film is embedded in this world on the brink between childhood and adulthood, equal parts bedazzled pink hearts and vicious social game play.
Within this microcosm, there are best friend duos and trios. Best friends are affectionate and vulnerable with each other, and these connections mean everything. For one pair—Hyo-shin and Shi-eun—this relationship goes further, and they become a romantic couple.
Even today, South Koreais not LGBTQ-tolerant. In 1999, having a lesbian relationship in a movie—especially a movie aimed at young people—led to government censorship. And made Memento Mori an instant cult classic.
Hyo-shin and Shi-eun create an ornate diary together, evidently something taken from real-life girl school culture. It is highly decorated, has hidden pockets, and possibly has the ability to cause hallucinations, or at the very least flashbacks. But mostly, the diary is full of confessions of their love for one another.
Min-ah, another student, finds the diary, and from that moment on, it will not let her leave it behind. She becomes possessed with it, if not by it, and the diary becomes the central storytelling device.
All does not go smoothly in Hyo-shin and Shi-eun’s relationship, not least because of their rejection by their peers, and Hyo-shin takes the breakup hard. She also might be pregnant by one of the teachers. Unable to bear one iniquity or the other, or both, she kills herself. Hyo-shin then comes back to haunt the school. Her supernatural view of her classmates is portrayed through a washed-out and yellowed film technique William Castle might have called “Ghost-O-Vision.”
Ghost Hyo-shin kills a couple people who were mean to her. Terror ensues. Mayhem follows. The cinematography and editing go a little nuts toward the end, and there are a few delightfully surreal moments. But all of this excitement is squashed into the last third of the movie.
Memento Mori has plenty of qualities besides government censorship that explain why it’s a Korean cult classic. It goes to great lengths to accurately portray a realistic courtship between teenage girls, and it doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happen in adolescence (e.g., bullying and being groomed by a trusted adult). It also shows a teenage girl’s unhinged vengeance.
This is a fair-to-middling girls’ school horror movie with a few neat film tricks, a story told out of sequence, and a couple hallucinatory scenes. Beyond that, it is an early (especially in Korean cinema) and sensitive portrayal of a queer adolescent relationship, and for that it is important.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“On a horror/cult movie level, it combines the hallucinatory horro[r]s of Repulsion with Lynch-ian flourishes that reside in a Pandora’s Box where the past and the present are as one.”–Steve Langton, The Spinning Image (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by Micah, who said he was “oddly fond of [this] very very flawed movie” that is ” similar to Donnie Darko in feel and content…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)