How successful would you say is a horror film that’s very good, yet not entirely a horror film? This is the dilemma that the Korean chiller Memento Mori leaves me facing. When all’s said and done, the movie is uncommonly strong, a quiet and heartbreaking story about the dangers of forbidden love. At the same time, it attempts to join the pack of Asian horror pictures still seeping into the U.S. market, yet you can tell that being scary is not what the filmmakers had in mind. I’d wholeheartedly recommend Memento Mori if you’re in the mood for a tender melodrama, but if thrills and chills are on your mind, you’re better off searching elsewhere.
Following in the footsteps of predecessor Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori sees its characters waging war on the educational battlefield in an all-girls high school. Our tour guide is Min-ah (Min-sun Kim), a student who’s just stumbled upon an interesting discovery. On campus grounds, she finds a diary containing the intimate details of two classmates, Hyo-shin (Yeh-jin Park) and Shi-eun (Young-jin Lee). As it turns out, the pair have become more than friends, their secret love blooming the more time they spend together. Min-ah can’t help but become completely absorbed the diary’s contents, but not even she’s prepared when one of the girls takes her life one fateful day. However, the real tragedy has yet to begin, as there’s more in diary for Min-ah to read, just as the dead girl’s spirit still has some business to take care of in the mortal world.
As the second and most controversial chapter of Korea’s “Ghost School” series, Memento Mori has more in mind than just freaking out teenagers. It not only has a story to tell, it also has the ambition to do so with the utmost effectiveness. These days, films that depict gay characters are slowly becoming more commonplace, but when Memento Mori was released in its native country, it was a fairly big deal. Homosexuality was an extremely taboo topic even in 1999, so when such themes were prominently presented in a mainstream horror film, many eyebrows were raised. Luckily, the writing/directing team of Tae-yong Kim and Kyu-dong Min had the foresight to abandon all exploitative pretenses. The pair does an excellent job of engrossing you in the story, making you as devoted to following Hyo-shin and Shi-eun as Min-ah is — well, maybe not that much, but you get what I mean. The filmmakers handle the romantic aspect in all the right ways, coaxing out its most tragic qualities without overdoing the melodrama. That this was the directors’ very first movie speaks volumes about their storytelling prowess, as the plot’s delicate themes make it enough of a high-wire act to begin with.
But a time does come at which Memento Mori dispenses with the love story and takes things in a decidedly darker direction. It’s at this point when the film, while remaining a solid piece of work, starts to waver a bit. I hear word that Kim and Min were hesitant to even include any horror elements, which is evident from how the last half flows nowhere near as smoothly as the first. In a sense, the story makes a logical progression; just as Min-ah discovers things weren’t all peaches and cream for the young lovers, the ghost’s fury threatens to violently boil over. The emotions stirring throughout Memento Mori do reach a crescendo of sorts, but the glitzy theatrics employed at the end do lessen its impact. The finale is a Carrie-esque nightmare that gets a little too silly for its own good (giant ghost, anyone?), though a couple creepy moments do work. In any case, the central relationships rise above all the noise, and the three main performances remain in pitch-perfect shape. Park and Lee work very well together as the doomed lovers, though Park deserves special mention for exploring her character in two different ways.
I’m not disappointed that Memento Mori didn’t make being a standard ghost story its top priority. I wish it was more adept at being both somber and scary, but it’s a tale that just couldn’t be told in straightforward horror fashion. Like its characters, Memento Mori is a film that dares to be different, a refreshing alternative to the legions of tactless Ringu imitators giving Asian horror a bad name.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Memento Mori review here.