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“Memento Mori” is a South Korean movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and when it finally decides what it should be, it makes the wrong choice. “Memento mori,” for those who don’t know, is a Latin phrase that, loosely translated, means “images of death.” They can be photographs or anything left behind by the dead. A memento mori is meant to remind the living that death is constant, that it’s a part of everyday life, and should be accepted instead of shunned or feared.
The movie “Memento Mori” takes place in an all-girls school where two girls, Hyo-shin (Yeh-jin Park) and Shi-eun (Young-jin Lee), are secret lovers. The movie takes great pains to avoid directly showing their lesbian affection for each other (re: sex scenes) and instead relies on knowing looks and intimate conversations between the two girls. For its first 40 minutes, “Memento Mori” is a love story about girls coming of age and finding love, passion, confusion, and withdrawal from society in favor of a special soulmate who understands you when no one else seems capable.
When we first meet the girls, we quickly learn something has transpired in the last year that has separated them emotionally. Though they still go to the same school, they’re no longer so close, and indeed Shi-eun seems to be pulling away, while Hyo-shin keeps making attempts to continue their love affair. In a way, Hyo-shin becomes obsessed with the other girl, going so far as to start talking about committing suicide together and entertaining other morbid thoughts. When everything looks like it’s all finally coming together again for the two girls, Hyo-shin abruptly dies from an apparent suicide, and returns as a ghost.
“Memento Mori” works best when it stays grounded in reality and focuses on the love affair between Shi-eun and Hyo-shin. They’re both 17 or 18 and confused about life, love, and how others will react if their secret is exposed. For its first 40 minutes, the movie is very effective, as it concentrates on the two girls’ roller coaster relationship, as they withdraw from each other, reunites, and withdraws some more. And then unexpectedly Hyo-shin’s death at the 40-minute mark turns a somber story into a pathetic excuse for a wannabe horror movie, and that’s when everything falls apart and I became completely and utterly annoyed.
Why call “Memento Mori” a “wannabe horror movie?” Simply put, the movie shows no real enthusiasm as a horror film. I can’t help but get the feeling the movie wants just to be (and should have just been) a love story between two people who just happens to be both girls, and who just happens to live in a country where lesbianism is still a relatively taboo subject.
Instead, the filmmakers felt inclined to give us a boring and heartless second half. If the sudden shift in style and substance wasn’t bad enough, the movie’s “horror” second half lacks any sort of suspense and the ending is curiously devoid of a resolution and ultimately any satisfaction. “Memento Mori” was directed by two people, and this might explain the lack of coherence from beginning to end. “Memento Mori” feels like it was written and directed by two people from two separate screenplays, and for some reason someone decided to merge the two.
What is the one thing about “Memento Mori” that makes me grind my teeth in irritation? It has to be the bastard characters. (For those who still want to see this movie, I suggest you stop reading here, because the following might be considered spoilers.) All movies, regardless of genre, sets up certain characters who we accept as the “bad guys,” and rather you’re watching a horror movie or a straight drama, you want (nay, you need) to be given some kind of resolution with the bastards, a sort of comeuppance to prove that you were forced to sit through the bastards’, well, bastardish behavior for a reason. And that reason is to wait for the bastards to “get theirs.” “Memento Mori” completely ignores our needs. The bastards never get anything close to a comeuppance, and to understand how much of a mistake this lack of resoluton is, consider that this is in a movie where a ghost can lock doors and appear and disappear at a whim.
If the fact that all the bastards got off scot-free doesn’t turn your stomach, Hyo-shin, as the ghost, only appears to the nice girl, the one who never treats the girls badly, and in fact feels sorry for them and helps one of them out whenever she can. Nice girl Min-ah (Min-sun Kim) not only gets haunted at every turn, she’s assaulted and almost killed at one point by Hyo-shin’s ghost. And what about the girl who taunts, assaults, and makes Hyo-shin and Shi-eun’s life a living hell every chance she gets? And who spreads all kinds of cruel rumors about them? Well, I can safely say that that she’s probably at home right now eating dinner and probably still badmouthing the two girls.
After watching “Memento Mori’s” generic Third Act, I have to wonder what this movie was supposed to be about. Actually, I have to wonder why I continued to watch this confused junk of a movie when it lost its way 40 minutes in.
Tae-Yong Kim, Kyu-Dong Min (director) / Tae-Yong Kim, Kyu-Dong Min (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sun Kim …. Min-ah
Yeh-jin Park …. Hyo-shin
Young-jin Lee …. Shi-eun