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Memento Mori
cast: Park Jin-yeh, Lee Young-jin, Kim Min-sun, Kim Min-hee, and Gong Huo-jin

directors: Kim Tae-yong, Min Kyu-dong

98 minutes (15) 1999
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Memento Mori forms part of a three-movie series (with Whispering Corridors and Wishing Stairs) that are linked solely through their setting in Korean girls' schools with no other plot connections. I haven't seen the other movies so can't make any comparisons, but Memento Mori is much more of a character-driven, relationship-focussed movie than a horror movie. Anyone reading the quote on the cover that "Memento Mori is frightening in the way The Others or The Sixth Sense should have been" will be wholly disappointed. As an intricate character study, however, it's well worth watching.

Min-ah (Min-sun Kim) is a student who finds a diary kept jointly by two other girls at the school who were involved in a secret lesbian relationship. To the director's credit, this is depicted as more of an intense friendship without any gratuitous sexual content and this adds much to the tension in the movie; especially when one of the girls, Hyo-shin (Yeh-jin Park) becomes pregnant after an affair with one of the teachers. Fearing the consequences at this knowledge becoming public during the school's health examinations - and having been emotionally abandoned by both the teacher and her 'close' schoolmate Shi-eun (Young-jin Lee) - Hyo-shin throws herself to her death off the top of the school building.

Because the sequence of events isn't depicted chronologically the subsequent plot can get very confusing, as flashbacks coupled with what appear to be Min-ah's hallucinations as she reads the diary infiltrate our understanding of the movie. However, as Min-ah becomes more obsessed with the diary - to the extent of faking illness to skip classes and continue reading - the spirit of Hyo-shin starts to dominate, as though Min-ah has become a conduit for the ghost to exact her revenge. Meantime, Shi-eun, always a withdrawn student, deals with her life without Hyo-shin by blanking it out. If it wasn't for Min-ah one suspects that Hyo-shin's life and death would gradually be forgotten.

Whilst the movie, through flashback, does get to grips with the relationship between Hyo-shin and Shi-eun, it is the horror aspect that gradually undoes it. If Hyo-shin's spirit is interested in revenge, then the focus is muddled. She doesn't appear to be interested in frightening those who were horrible to her before her death, and her presence serves little purpose other than for Min-ah to uncover the relationship via the diary. Yet, the other students would have known about the lesbian relationship - certainly after one ferocious classroom kiss - and this disparity creates the feeling of a plot in flux. Perhaps the clue is in the UK title, Memento Mori - 'remember the dead'. Hyo-shin's purpose is for those that remain living to remember and understand her in death, as they never did in life.

The movie culminates in Hyo-shin's ghost being seen by the entire school which leads to mass hysteria amongst the students. This segment feels overdone - five minutes of schoolgirls running around aimlessly - whilst the special effect of a massive Hyo-shin peering downwards at the school is the epitome of cheesiness. Indeed, from interviews it appears that the film's producers forced stronger horror elements upon the directors, whereas keeping to the themes initiated at the start of the movie would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion.

What are powerful are the performances of the mostly amateur actors, which lend the movie an authentic feel, even though, in some instances, it is also undermined for the same reasons. And the diary itself is exquisite: a wonderful concoction of teenage angst and a melange of ideas and pictures. Multiple interpretations of some events also leave you thinking about the movie long after its conclusion. However, simply because it is open to discussion doesn't automatically mean that it adds depth. A simple answer might be that the director hadn't sufficiently realised the concept behind the movie.

Those hoping for some insight in the accompanying making-of documentary will find little satisfaction. Indeed, its inclusion feels almost arbitrary, as if it was made because these are the sorts of extras present on DVDs nowadays. Other extras include a music video, which acts as a kind of extended trailer, the original trailer, and trailers for other Tartan DVD releases. In conclusion, Memento Mori is an interesting, multi-layered movie with some compelling cinematography. Worth seeking out, but hardly a classic, Asian or otherwise.

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