According to Judge Joel Pearce, the new dawn of horror has arrived—right over Korea.
The first day a girl dies with her head emptied out.
The "sort of" sequel to Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori is a triumph of great filmmaking in spite of challenging circumstances. Directors Tae-yong Kim and Kyu-dong Min didn't really want to make a horror movie, and were instead far more fascinated by a taboo relationship between two young schoolgirls. Korean society has some serious issues with homosexuality, though, so this story needed to be embedded into a film of another genre, and a whole lot of controversial footage needed to be excised. So, the project was made into a ghost story, with most of the physical relationship between the two girls removed. The result is incredible, because the love story remains deeply personal and moving, and the ghost story works surprisingly well too.
Facts of the Case
One day, Min-ah (Min-sun Kim, 2009: Lost Memories) stumbles over the secret diary of two of her peers. It turns out that Shi-eun (Young-jin Lee), one of the girls from her own class, is in a rather taboo relationship with Hyo-shin (Yeh-jin Park), a senior student in the school. The diary follows the development of their relationship, and includes a strange pill, which Min-ah is foolish enough to take. When one of the girls suddenly commits suicide, Min-ah is haunted by the girl, which gradually begins to spread through the whole school. There are other secrets surrounding the death, which Min-ah can only hope she will uncover before she goes completely insane.
In terms of emotional impact, there's no reason for Memento Mori to be a ghost story. The emotional pain that 17-year-old girls are put through regularly is enough to make a compelling and chilling film. That pain is highlighted in an all girl's school, and is far closer to the center of this film than the whole ghost situation. This also highlights the brilliance of the structure of the film. We are given an inside look into that emotional roller-coaster, which makes us as eerily fascinated as Min-Ah is. The film is presented in a three act structure, the first of which doesn't feel much like horror at all.
Of course, the horror genre doesn't exist solely to scare the audience. Most great horror films have something to say, whether it's about the things that do scare us, or a statement about society, or about the particular group of people that the film looks closely at. Memento Mori does all of these things, and handles them in a unique way. In my review of Whispering Corridors, I discussed what the first film of the series had to say about the Korean girls' school culture. This second film is even stronger in these statements, exposing it as a culture of shame and fear. The girls are left to their own devices much of the time, where they act out the hierarchy they've been placed in, controlling each others' actions. The girls are often humiliated publicly by the school staff as well. Their school performance is loudly criticized in front of their peers. In one particularly telling scene, the girls are measured and weighed, the numbers yelled out loudly for the others to hear. Many of the girls are mortified by this exercise, and it's during this time that one of the young lovers leaps to her death.
And that's the moment that Memento Mori becomes a horror film. It's already a third of the way in when the suicide occurs, but few of the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place by that point. Through the second act, more of these pieces come together as the girls try to cope with yet another suicide in the school and Min-ah learns more about the relationship between Shi-eun and Hyo-shin. This middle act is creepier, but also explores more of the issues in the school. It seems odd that a pair of male teachers would wield so much power in an all girls' school, and yet the misogyny that exists in society is carried on through their unpleasant actions. The homosexual relationship between the girls must remain hidden, of course, which adds strain to the relationship.
In the final act, the remaining pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place, but the ghost and other issues still need to be dealt with by students and staff. I won't discuss the details of this segment, but by this point the issues that the film has dealt with and the solutions of the characters are difficult to distinguish. It's not the ghost that places the girls in danger so much as the secrets and rumors in the school. The tagline of the film is "some secrets should never be revealed," but I disagree. This culture's dark secrets (some by necessity) cause the problems. The solution requires either a complete submersion of those secrets, or else a paradigm shift that makes the authorities in the school accountable for their own actions, and allows the students to have some freedom.
Even if the script and storytelling weren't so impressive, Memento Mori would be worth watching on the merits of its crafting. It's been filmed beautifully, with exquisite hand-held work and effective use of the geography of the school. This technique creates a voyeuristic feel, which is appropriate because of the nature of Min-ah's curiosity and the secret nature of the relationship. At the beginning of the film, the school is sunny and bright, the halls are welcoming. Over the course of the film, the camera probes deeper into the dark corners of the school, and things grow gradually dimmer, as if the film is heading towards nightfall. This shift is pointed enough to be effective, but subtle enough to be unobtrusive. The only film effect that doesn't work so well is the shots from the point of view of the ghost, which look like someone trying to replicate the Predator vision with a cheap camcorder. Aside from that, every moment of the film is beautiful to look at.
The performances are excellent too, especially for a virtually unknown cast. The performances of the girls are all exceptional, especially from the three leads. Min-ah's curiosity is believable, and the relationship between Shi-eun and Hyo-shin is heartbreakingly true to watch. The supporting cast is solid as well, as watching these girls felt just like standing in front of a group of grade 10 students in Canada. That believability in the first act of the film makes the transition to horror that much more effective.
Especially considering that Memento Mori is low budget and several years old, I was blown away by the quality of the transfer. The video quality is razor sharp, capturing the wide color palette equally well in bright and dark scenes. The shadow detail is remarkable, there's a natural looking level of grain, and I didn't notice many print flaws or artifacts. I suspect that it's the result of a new high definition transfer, and it's stunning every bit of the way. The sound is almost as good, with great sounding Dolby Digital surround and DTS tracks. Both tracks clearly come from the same source, and make good use of the surrounds and the sub. The rear channel use is subtle but quite immersing, and the dialogue and music always come through clearly. A reference quality disc from a six year old low budget Asian film is very impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Less impressive are the number of extra features on the disc. Korea just got a six disc edition of the film (really), which includes this version of the film, a version about twice as long with sequences the directors weren't allowed to use re-inserted, two discs of extras, a high definition version of the film and a soundtrack CD. I'm not saying that all of that should have been included in this version, but some of the deleted sequences and a commentary track would have had a lot of value in this case. Controversial films need to be contextualized, and the brief production featurette included here doesn't even scratch the surface. It has some talking head footage, but it only talks about the characters and general structure of the film. There's a music video as well, with the song used towards the end of the film with a montage of images.
Undoubtedly, many people will be drawn to Memento Mori by the promise of lesbian schoolgirls. What they will find is a film that's never titillating, but does contain a haunting romance and a chilling ghost story. After it's all over, it isn't the ghost scenes that stand in my memory, but rather the depth of the romance and the situation that these girls have to live through in the boarding school. This is a great film, which should be added to every horror and Asian film buff's must see list. This disc from Tartan Video is a fine way to experience it, too, even though there aren't enough special features.
The directors may have not been able to make the film they had planned, but Memento Mori is still a remarkable accomplishment. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Production Featurette
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