I’ll be the first to admit that I can get all girly when I watch horror flicks – no joke, I’m that stereotypical girl who hides her eyes when the scary scene happens – but that doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of them. Especially the ones that have an element of thriller in them. Come on, admit it, the nice little kickstart of adrenaline that happens when we get scared is fun. Add into the mix some romance and comedy, and I’m hooked. Which is why I was looking forward to the screening of Mourning Grave (소녀괴담) at the 18th Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (Reel Asian).
In Su, a high school student, can see ghosts. After being plagued by them everywhere he goes and harassed by his classmates because of it, he returns to his hometown to live with his uncle and to finally put to rest the past. No sooner had he arrived when he sees his first ghost there, a pretty girl. But just like before, it’s not just the ghosts that affect his life – the school bullies in the high school in his hometown are still a problem.
Then one day, the bullies start being attacked by a vengeful ghost wearing a bloody mask. And In Su starts to think that his new friend, the pretty ghost, may have something to do with it.
I like how it’s creepy and the scares build in the viewers’ imagination. The use of sound effects enhances the buildup and tension, and occasionally adds a startle. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to jump a little in my chair because of a sound when the scene was all creepy and we’re expecting a ghost to pop out at any time. Likewise, the violence was usually hinted at or done behind the scenes so the audiences’ imagination was invoked but we didn’t actually see most of the killing.
While there were scares, ghosts and killings, I found Mourning Grave to be more of a romantic drama with comedic elements and of course, some mild elements of horror. It was so sweet when In Su, played quite convincingly by Kang Ha Neul (강하늘), and the ghost (whose name we didn’t know at this point but who turns out to be Sae Hee) talked to the blind lady and told her that her dead guide dog was still beside her. This scene – along with a few others – helped build the romance between In Su and Sae Hee, but also, helped the audience connect to both of them. It was impossible not to like Sae Hee when she was her normal, sweet self.
While I enjoy horror flicks – getting just a little scared is a nice adrenaline rush – I generally don’t cry when I watch them (like I do with many films I watch, ah, the challenge of being emotional). I chalk this up to the fact that most of them, horror flicks I mean, generally don’t spend a lot of time building the characters. The emphasis is often more on the scare and then the story, with character development coming last. But with Mourning Grave, I felt that the emphasis was on the characters and the unfolding story (along with the moral/social issues behind the story), and the scare/horror element was used to give flair and drama but wasn’t the primary focus.
Watching In Su cry after he goes to see A Young’s family and then sees A Young looking normal and happy made me cry (although not for the last time in the film). But more than that it was a good way to give some back story to In Su’s character and why he feels so compelled to help the ghosts with their grudges.
However, it wasn’t the most emotional of all the scenes – that honour goes to when we find out how the Mask personality was created. Sae Hee, played by Kim So Eun (김소은), was subjected to some of the most vicious and cruel bullying. Tears literally streamed down my face while I watched that scene and I thought that it was no wonder she was killing her bullies. How could she not be filled with vengeance? But I also wondered – as I’m sure the director wanted the audience to – why her teacher didn’t step in and stop it as it was so very blatant that she must have known what was happening. And how no one tried to help. Now I know I cry easily while watching films but I think the reality behind the problem of bullying made this story and film resound – and it’s what stayed with me afterwards.
I liked the blending of the more scary scenes with the ghosts with the softer scenes as we watch In Su fall in love with Sae Hee’s good ghost personality. There were some cute scenes, especially when they try to take a selfie together and then their surprise when Sae Hee’s image isn’t in the photo. Or when she is spying on him in his room and then he strips off his clothes for the shower – watching her cover her eyes, peek, cover them, peek… too cute. And the scares were there as well – maybe not as much as in a traditional horror flick but the subway scene at the start might give you pause when getting on an empty subway car at night.
Interestingly, I was left with one question at the end of the film – who was the ghost from the school’s shed that ends up with the uncle? Her appearance gave the impression that she had a grudge but she was always friendly, if a bit simple, and still there five years later. Both character however, the uncle, played by Kim Jung Tae (김정태), and that ghost, provided a lot of the comic relief.
The twist of a multiple-personality ghost was intriguing and a bit of an unexpected twist. “The ghost was Sae Hee and Sae Hee was the Mask.” But I will say that I love thrillers – and Mourning Grave did definitely have aspects of a ‘who-done-it’ – it wasn’t until I saw the scene in the library that I realized the Mask was possessing Sae Hee’s father to commit the murders. And yeah, I smacked myself in the head at that point for not seeing the obvious. But that is the mark of a good film.
While I wrote the majority of the review prior to the screening (from a press screener), I also attended the Reel Asian screening with four friends, all girls. We all enjoyed the film but were split over how scary it was. Two of my friends found it quite scary; while the rest of us found it more of a romantic drama/comedy with some scary scenes. But regardless, our reaction led me to think that Mourning Grave would be a great date flick. It’s a great blend of the genres of teen flick, romantic comedy and horror with a bit of thriller thrown in for good measure. A fun film, it will make you laugh, cry and jump a bit in your seat. All in all, a great first film by director Oh In Chun (오인천).