Hangul: 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 / 여고괴담 II
Romanisation: Yeogo goedam II
Release Date: 24th December 1999 (South Korea)
Running Time: 98 mins.
Director: Kim Tae-Yong, Min Kyu-Dong
Writer: Kim Tae-Yong, Min Kyu-Dong
Starring: Kim Gyu-Ri, Park Yeh-Jin, Lee Young-Jin, Baek Jong-Hak, Ki Jae-In, Kong Hyo-Jin
A year after Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori continues the franchise with a bitter tale of love, rejection and isolation that causes an outbreak of supernatural craziness in another all-girl’s school.
Min-Ah (Kim Gyu-Ri) is late for class when she discovers a diary which records the strange and obsessive world of the writer who is at the same school and is in love with a fellow pupil. As Min-Ah reads the diary she discovers what she thinks are sweets. After taking one of them she reads a suicide pact and becomes ill. Min-Ah heads to the school clinic where she witnesses class nerd Hyo-Shin (Park Yeh-Jin) and athletic Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) share an intense conversation before disappearing. With a physical exam due for her class, Min-Ah heads off to join her friends but the check-up is disrupted by the death of Hyo-Shin. What happened? Can the diary explain things? Is Min-Ah poisoned? What are Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun hiding?
Out of the entire franchise Memento Mori has to be my favourite and not because of the lesbianism which caused a bit of a stir when it was released in Korea but because much like Whispering Corridors the film has a complex and emotionally moving story. (Minor character related spoilers ahead)
It opens with a beautiful and distinct visual of two school girls sinking in a pool of water, the red string of fate¹ tying them together by their ankles until one girl panics, unties herself and kicks away to the surface leaving the other to sink.
This intriguing opening leads to a tale with psychologically complicated and realistic characters which gives all of the actions an acutely personal and painful edge.
Wanna write a diary together?
Memento Mori takes place in an average school. For most of the film the viewer observes the goofy behaviour that school kids engage in from pulling faces at each other, pushing each other around, making embarrassing videos, general larking about and gossiping. Accompanying these mostly innocent actions is the intense feeling of togetherness felt by pupils and, for some, a burgeoning sexuality. It all means much more to two students who exchange meaningful glances and what seem like telepathic thoughts between each other but can their love be realised in such a hot house environment sharp tongues and conservative mindsets? Min-Ah stumbles upon this illicit love with the discovery of the diary and like her I was drawn into this world.
While the film takes place over the course of a day the non-linear narrative distorts the temporal space of the film since it incorporates Min-Ah’s reading of the diary which allows past and present to co-mingle along with the obsessive fantasies of the writer. This leads to the director inter-cutting between events creating an off-kilter atmosphere which draws us into the diary and Min-Ah’s increasingly unhealthy curiosity about the love between the girls in the diary.
The relationship between Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) and Hyo-Shin (Park Yeh-Jin) is given to us in fragments through the diary but remains moving thanks to the performances and the dedication to realistic characterisation. There is a sense of innocence and playfulness to the relationship but the lesbian aspect of it means that it becomes problematic in the lives of the two girls and one feels it more acutely than the other.
Park Yeh-Jin as Hyo-Shin gives a brilliant performance which reveals that she is used to being ostracised for being smarter than others. She is beautiful and elegant and intelligent but this is hidden because of the nature of (almost any) school is that anyone who stands out becomes a target for bullies and gossips. The reluctance to stand out is shown aptly in one sequence where a teacher gets her up in class to recite poetry. In a medium shot she drags herself out of her seat and recites. While speaking we see it in a medium shot and are aware of other’s eyes on her as the soundtrack catches snatches of jealous whispers are caught behind her back. Behind the quiet façade is a girl surging with passion and invention and daring which she reveals to Shi-Eun.
“The world is made of sounds. People have their own tune. Together they can make harmony or dissonance.”
Whenever the two find themselves alone together they discover a mutual attraction but while Hyo-Shin becomes increasingly dedicated to Shi-Eun the feeling is not mutual as Shi-Eun seems to have doubts as to their relationship. As the film progresses Hyo-Shin’s passion becomes manic and almost stifling which drives Shi-Eun further away and into acting out harsh behavior.
Lee Young-Jin as Shin-Eun has a slightly more masculine look with her tallness, sharp features and athletic build. Her performance is mysterious and tough. She also has coolness and a slight teenage sullenness about her which makes her seem apathetic to reality. At her most open she has a warm and playful side but she wears a false mask and relies on a certain distance to protect herself. As the idea of illicit love becomes more threatening to her we see the character become more guarded, her smile does not come as easily as in earlier scenes and you see her wanting to physically pull away from others.
I found watching the two interact revealed something beautiful and something painful about teenage love and I shared Min-Ah’s growing curiosity although, thankfully, I avoided the supernatural activity. As the film played out I was distinctly moved by the unfolding events.
Complexity in character and script is matched in direction.
The same observation of the students I mentioned earlier also serves to chart the rejection and humiliation faced by the couple in the diary. In one horrendous scene there is a POV shot that show gossips staring directly at a character while another physically and emotionally intense scene has a camera circle 360 degrees to show the fallout of the action. Techniques get a lot more complicated, especially when the haunting starts.
Throughout the film the scares are mostly impressionistic and lack a visceral edge. There are glimpses of spectres in uniform, doors opening and closing, and ghostly laughter over the PA system but it is not as scary as it sounds but the interesting parts are the more hallucinatory experiences especially as Min-Ah comes under the influence of the diary which takes on a supernatural edge. There is one great sequence with Min-Ah where time lapse is used and everyone passing is sped up almost into a blur while she remains sitting, rooted to the spot by a supernatural force that has dragged her from her everyday surroundings into a supernatural bubble.
When supernatural chaos breaks out the film loses a degree of coherency as it cross-cuts between a lot of action scenes. There are lots of dolly shots as hundreds of extras dash about trying to escape some (light-weight) supernatural scares. I found that this did not detract from the overall story since the characters, actors and the way the story was filmed with its great direction, had moved me. When the final credits ran I admired it, including the ending, for its drama more than the supernatural elements. Take out the haunting and make it a psychological tale and it would still work. I had come to care about the characters and wanted them to be happy regardless of their gender.
¹Red thread of fate? They are destined to be lovers. It is a scene that is sexy until you watch the making-of.