World cinema retro-review: Memento Mori (Yeogo Goedam II), South Korea (1999)

Confucius once said that one can gauge the state of the nation through its music. I actually think he is right over that one – but Confucius never foresaw that another form of art would prove more powerful than music: movies, a visual medium whose influence on young impressionable minds, and on preserving the status quo, as well as its potential for spearheading change, is still hotly debated. It’s the classic “Which came first? the chicken or the egg ?”debate. Did we help movies become what they are right now? Did we shape the way movies are being marketed to us? Or did the movies shape us into becoming who we are? It’s an endless debate with no end in sight.

I have since then, believed that while movies can and do have the power and potential to help change or shape or keep things the way they are, I believe that like any other form of popular culture, we should take movies with a grain of salt.

Which brings us to “Memento Mori” (also known as Yeogo Goedam II) the Korean horror movie that was supposed to be a cult hit in 1999.

I had huge expectations for this one. I am a big movie fan and lately I’d discovered the joys of watching Korean films. For those viewers sick and tired of the largely unimaginative film fare that Hollywood has been churning out the past few decades, Asian cinema offers surprisingly more than you would expect. The Korean films I have watched thus far, “See You After School”, “Sex is Zero”, “Viva!Love”, “Like a Virgin” and “200 pounds of Beauty”, “She’s on Duty”, “Too Beautiful to Lie” , the “My Wife is a Gangster” series, are a testament to how competitive the Korean film industry is. I enjoyed watching these films so much I’d decided to make a whole blog about Asian films (and films and music and books in general) just so other net geek can learn about Asian cinema and start watchin these films as well.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this film and found, with increasing horror, that the horror was not in the film itself, but in the fact that this film got made at all.

Where do I start?

Well, first of all – there’s a confusion of marketing strategies at work here. It’s been marketed in Korea and in most part of Asia, as a horror film.

It’s been marketed to gay viewers such as myself, as a “Asian gay horror film” and so I looked forward to seeing what such a film would be like. At the back of my mind was the idea that this film could end badly. And right I was. Not a few minutes into the story and the story has already ended badly, with main protagonist, the enigmatic, talented and intense high school girl Hyo-Shin (Yeh Jin Park – the only reason I stuck to watching this one) committing suicide, jumping to her death from the top of one of buildings, even as her classmates go through what is meant to be a horrifying situation: the regular health check-ups for girls (where girls are submitted to the humiliation of  finding out that their breast size has stayed the same since grade school). What happens next is the attempt of another character,  Min-ah (Min-Sun Kim) to make sense of her death in a rather disturbing voyeuristic way, by reading through the dead girl’s artfully written diary, where thoughts of suicide and other morbid thoughts are revealed to us. But at the core of the diary and of the story, seems to be the intense friendship, eventual relationship and subsequent break-up Hyo-Shin has with another girl, Shi Eun (Young-jin Lee). Seems, I say, because while there is a story in there somewhere – it seems like it does not develop into anything more substantial other than as a basis for what comes next: a rather corny “The Haunting” kind of sequence where Hyo-Shin appears in Min-Ah’s locker (as a bloodied face no less), in musical auditorium, playing piano, on the rooftop, and in the climax – on top of the glass roof, a huge face looking down at Shi Eun’s face. I could go over all the things that make this a bad horror film, and I will forever wonder why it had good reviews from the Korean press and why it was such a hit (well, as far as I know) – my Korean friends said it was a huge hit in Korea when it first came out. But it  just isn’t as compelling as “The Ring” or “The Sixth Sense” and it doesn’t have that absurd, cheesy, campy thing going for it as well that would make any filmgoer enjoy it, despite the corniness of it all.

I think the problem with this film is that it tries to be too many things at the same time: a coming-of-age tale, a criticism of the Korean education system, a lesbian first love story that goes terribly and horribly awry, a horror film. It doesn’t help that it shifts back and forth in its storytelling, confusing its viewers even more. The viewers would thus probably ask themselves, is this Hyo Shin a ghost? Or is it a memory that Min-Ah is reliving? Or a fantasy she has? While I am all for post-modern meaning, symbolism and metaphor making, there comes a time when you just have to choose how to say something and stick to it.  I have nothing against cyclical storytelling – in the hands of a capable storyteller, it becomes more compelling than linear storytelling (Hong Kong’s Hu Die, a favorite of mine and which I’ll review later on, being a good example), but in this case, this kind of storytelling falls flat.

There is a reason why movies are supposed to have themes and thematic designs. They help the writer, the director, the actors, pretty much everyone involved in its production focused. This story doesn’t seem to have that at all.

And so, could Confucius have gotten any idea about Korean society from watching such a film? I don’t know. I’d probably have some of my own: lesbianism is tantamount to social and actual suicide, Korean education is not at all that good – but which educational system from which country  is? Horror as perceived in Korea is an artistic,depressing darkness of suicides.

I still don’t know why it was a hit, but it is safe to say that this film is probably shaped by how its largely Korean audience perceived it, and vice versa.

One hopes that in the future – we would have more positive representations of GLBT people, and not just films of situational homosexuality interspersed with horror.

PS I chose this clip from the film because though it intends to be scary, I just thought it was the most unintentionally hilarious, gayest scenes I had ever  come across in a while. Others might agree, but I just thought it was really queer.

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