Mourning Grave (2014)

This is, more or less, the text of my introduction to the belated UK première of Mourning Grave (the Korean Cultural Centre UK, 16 March 2017), and then a second screening the following week (SOAS, 24 March) as part of Chills and Thrills, Colette Balmain’s series of overlooked K-horror.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this special screening of Mourning Grave, as part of Colette Balmain’s eclectic programme of seldom seen modern K-horror. I’ll start with a quote from the film.

“Multiple personality disorder occurs when the original personality can’t stand the pain and anger, and hides behind a new personality.”

These words are spoken in Mourning Grave by Kang Sun-il (Kim Jung-tae) to his nephew In-su (Kang Ha-neul). In context, Sun-il is talking about a ghost with a split identity – after all, both Sun-il and In-su are mediums, having inherited the power to see ghosts from In-su’s great grandfather, who was a powerful exorcist. Yet in talking of multiple personalities, Sun-il might as well be describing Mourning Grave itself, a film which ostensibly deals with the kind of traumatic  ‘pain and anger’ (and of course fear) that we expect from horror, but which along the way dons so many different masks and personalities – comedy, romance, melodrama – that it offers, in the end, a hybrid – or if you like, a schizophrenic – form of genre. The feature debut of Oh In-chun (12 Deep Red Nights, 2015; Chasing, 2016), and written by Lee Jong-ho (The Sleepless, 2012), Mourning Grave is concerned, centrally, with high school student In-su’s coming of age and gradual acquisition of adult responsibility, but the film’s own identity proves as mercurial and changeable as any adolescent’s. Even the film’s Korean name has shifted and changed: its original Korean title was Sonyeomudeom, literally ‘The Girl’s Grave’; but out of sensitivity towards the sinking of the MV Sewol on 16 April 2014, that title was altered to Sonyeogoedam, literally ‘Girl Ghost Story’, before the film’s world première in South Korea on 2 July 2014.

I do not wish here to give away the many narrative twists and surprises in Mourning Grave, as they are best left to be discovered by the viewer – so the only scene which I shall discuss in any great detail is the opening sequence leading up to the title, which is in many ways programmatic for what will follow, and certainly introduces, whether directly or on the sly, a number of the film’s key themes and variations. It begins with a commuter train, travelling through the night in Seoul. On board is In-su, dressed in his school uniform and headed to the apartment where, while his parents are based in America, he lives by himself . He is on his mobile phone to his mother, reassuring her that he is fine. “It’s better than in the US – the kids are nice to me,” he reassures her, adding somewhat more cryptically, “I don’t see them these days – I’m not scared when I see them.” We see, immediately, that In-su’s reassurances to his mother are empty. For not only is he bullied by three boys from his new school, who have heard the rumour that he sees ghosts; but also In-su, and we with him, see the terrifying ghost of a woman in the same train carriage – and once she has realised that In-su can actually see her, she follows him home and whispers into his ear, “Relieve my grudge.”

If In-su has returned to South Korea from a stint of schooling in the US, then he has also brought back with him a K-horror premise borrowed directly from two American films. In M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film The Sixth Sense (1999), a terrified boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) whispers the famous words, “I see dead people”, before learning from his child psychiatrist (Bruce Willis) how to help the unrestful dead find peace. In 2013, in Stephen Sommers’ film Odd Thomas (based on Dean Koontz’s novel from 2003), the eponymous hero (played by Anton Yelchin) also says, “I see dead people”, before adding confidently, “but then, by God, I do something about it!” The difference between Cole and Odd is one of age: Cole is a boy of merely nine years, whereas Odd is the 20-year-old adult that Cole might end up becoming in time. In-su shares Cole and Odd’s ability to see dead people and to help ghosts resolve their unfinished business in the world of the living, but as he falls somewhere between Cole and Odd in age, this teenager has not yet come to terms with his gift – or is it curse? Nor, for that matter, has his older uncle Sun-il, whose arrested development is reflected in the literal house arrest that he has imposed upon himself as he refuses to leave the confines of his talisman-covered home for fear of encountering more ghosts. When In-su leaves Seoul and moves in with Sun-il in what had been his childhood home, both uncle and nephew have some growing up to do.

Like the series Cheo Yong which first aired on Korean television in early 2014, and which concerned a paranormal detective sometimes assisted by the ghost of a high-school girl, Mourning Grave has imported part of its central premise from the American films The Sixth Sense and Odd Thomas – yet it has also naturalised this premise to more local forms. After all, Mourning Grave belongs to that most Korean of film types, the high school horror. This K-horror subgenre first registered with Park Ki-hying’s Whispering Corridors in 1998, and reared a quartet of thematically linked, if otherwise non-continuous, sequels from different directors: Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong’s Memento Mori (1999), Tun Jae-yeon’s Wishing Stairs (2003), Choi Ik-hwan’s Voice (2005), Lee Jong-yong’s A Blood Pledge (2009) – the last of which was screened two weeks ago as part of this series. Mourning Grave shares with all these films its themes of bullying, suicide and the supernatural all playing out in a secondary school setting. The only difference is that the high schools in the Whispering Corridors series are all-girl, whereas the one in Mourning Grave is mixed-sex – as is established in that opening scene with its introduction of the film’s protagonist school pupil, the male In-su. Oh’s film does, however, share its co-educational setting with other Korean high school horrors like Im Dae-hoong’s Bloody Reunion (2006) and Chang’s Death Bell (2008). Of course, Korea is not the only country to have taken horror to high school, and Oh also carefully places in Mourning Grave an allusion to the bloody prom scene from Carrie (1976), whose director, Brian de Palma, happens to be Oh’s favourite filmmaker.

The ghostly possessions and exorcisms in Mourning Grave are staple themes in horror from across the globe, while much of the comic characterisation of Uncle Sun-il and his bumbling master-apprentice relationship with In-su has clearly been influenced by Hong Kong horror. All this has, though, to a degree been brought into line with homegrown Korean shamanic practice, via the paper talismans, the ritual swords and daggers, the hereditary ‘priesthood’, and the rites for the release of the dead’s impure spirits, all of which feature in the film as well as in Korean Shamanism.

There is one other major influence on the iconography of Mourning Grave. The vengeful evil spirit that In-su and Sun-il must eventually confront is a young female ghost wearing a surgical mask over her lower face. Her appearance is unmistakably that of the kuchisake-onna or ‘slit-mouthed woman’ who has appeared in Japanese ghost stories since the Edo period, and has, since the 1970s, become a popular urban legend as well as being represented in various Japanese films, manga and anime. While the ghost in Mourning Grave has an entirely different origin story and modus operandi from kuchisake-onna, her look is exactly the same, apart from one detail: there is a blood patch on her mask where her mouth would be. The detail of the blood-red mask would appear to have been borrowed from a variant of the Japanese urban myth that emerged specifically and exclusively in South Korea in 2004. According to this version, a woman in a red mask would appear to strangers – especially children – asking them if they think she is pretty as she reveals her horrifically carved-up face, and the setting for this encounter is the subway in Korea’s capital – which brings us back full circle line to that opening scene of Mourning Grave, as a ghostly woman approaches a schoolboy on a train in Seoul…

© Anton Bitel