Haunting, Mysterious, and Unsettling

Out today in a Region 1 edition from Tartan Video USA is the Korean thriller MEMENTO MORI (1999). It’s one of my faves from the last few years.

Though I haven’t had a chance to check out Tartan’s version, which is said to feature Korean DD 5.1 and DTS audio tracks, English/Spanish subtitles, plus documentaries and a photo gallery, here’s a slightly edited review I wrote for this site almost exactly three years ago about the Korean Region 0 disk.

Memento Mori - Image courtesy of SpectrumSouth Korea. 98 minutes.
Spectrum DVD. Region 0. NTSC.
Directed by Kim Tae-Yong and Min Kyu-Dong
Written by Kim Tae-Yong and Min Kyu-Dong
With Lee Young-Jin, Park Eh-Jin, Kim Min-Sun

Don’t be misled by thinking that this is an everyday horror film. It’s really more about what happens to ordinary teen girls facing the intense pressures of adolescent life.

The film is a sequel to 1998’s WHISPERING CORRIDORS in name only; the two male first-time directors did extensive research and came up with an original story that centers around a girl named Min-Ah. Min-Ah finds the secret diary shared by her schoolmates Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun. As Min-Ah reads the diary, she is utterly fascinated by the details that are revealed about the relationship between the girls, to the point that Min-Ah’s friendship with her two closest friends begins to be affected. Then something happens to one of the girls, and no one will ever be the same again.

You could boil the plot down to one sentence: It’s tough to be a teenage girl. Or you could describe it as a simple love story between two complex creatures. But neither effectively captures the essence of the movie, because at heart it is extremely unsettling in ways I cannot fully convey.

The first part of the film details the ordinary life of schoolgirl Min-Ah. She plays around with her friends, goofs off during class, and frets about her appearance. She attends an all-girls school, so boys are not in evidence. The male teachers are viewed mysteriously. Parents are never mentioned. It’s all about Min-Ah and her friends. So the secret diary is powerfully alluring — it’s different, it’s daring, it’s nothing she’s ever experienced. As she reads, the diary comes to life. We see the attraction and affection between Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun in private. Yet there’s a growing unease — teenage romances, though paralyzing in their intensity, rarely last. How long can the relationship survive?

After a tragedy occurs, the girls cope in different ways. Increasingly, the school and the students become disconnected from reality. But are the strange occurrences supernatural? Or are the girls losing their minds?

The horror elements are icing on a cake that is already quite tasty. They are not fully integrated into the balance of the material, but in many ways that works to the advantage of the film. The co-directors show tremendous potential with their debut effort.

The photography is gorgeous with a welcome degree of variety. The editing is razor sharp, and the excellent musical score, utilizing piano and choral compositions, enhances the mystery.

* DVD Notes *

The letterboxed presentation is excellent. Colors are vibrant, black tones are very deep, and flesh tones appear appealing.

Two Korean audio tracks are provided (DD 5.1 and 2.0). I listened to the DD 5.1 track, and it was excellent – dynamic and expansive, with extensive use of the surround and LFE channels.

The white (with black backing) removable English subtitles are easy to read, but sometimes fly by a bit quick. No other subtitles are provided.

Twenty chapters can be selected from a multi-page video capture menu (“scene selection”). Cast and crew information is provided in Korean only. The original theatrical trailer is included. Click on “OST” and you can listen to 10 musical selections from the sound track. It would have been more helpful, though, if you could choose to listen to all 10 pieces in a row, instead of having to select each one. A small commemorative booklet, with production notes in Korean, is included.

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