You're Admitting It, Just By Being Silent: Memento Mori (1999)

I was going to dodge doing films within the horror genre for at least a month, however, this Korean film project has meant that I am tied down to watching a particular set of films, not that I mind of course considering it is a main area of research interests, particularly in the ways gender is portrayed within the films.  Yet even when I reflect on Memento Mori while writing this blog I realize that referring to it as a  a horror film is somewhat misleading and were it not for the last fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, it would seem to be the complete antithesis of anything of the genre.  Instead, as others of have argued, Memento Mori is a study of young love, in this case in a lesbian context and manages to stick to its guns about this theme for a good portion of the film.  Of course when I say that this is a horror movie, set in a high school about two young girls discovering their lesbian desires, one could easily read it as being something of an exploitative flick, particularly considering the latent violence and sexuality within so much of New Korean Cinema, yet, in the hands of co-directors Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-dong Min we are provided with an earnest look into two girls falling head over heals for one another despite the aggressive and physical abuses enacted upon them by their fellow students, as well as the faculty and staff of the high school they attend.  In a tradition somewhat normal in the Korean psychological thriller, the film's narrative is quite non-linear and even appears to contain dueling narratives existing within the same film space.  While this is apparently a loose sequel to an earlier film titled Whispering Corridors, something I am now dying to see, Memento Mori manages to make strides in its commentaries on youthful angst and ill-will, as well as draw serious attention to issues of silencing and bullying the other.  I often find myself engaged in conversations in which much criticism is brought about as to the lack of interesting and appropriate lesbian figures within film, had I known of this film prior I would have leapt at the opportunities to discuss this highly overrated work.  I would boldy suggest that were Memento Mori not suffering from mislabeling as horror, it would be a far more recognized work.

The film, as mentioned, primarily centers on the burgeoning love between two young girls, one the somewhat well-respected, if not despised Min Hyo-sin (Park Ye-jin) and the reserved athlete Yoo Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) who suffers from some sort of hearing loss that causes her to be the subject of ridicule by classmates and teachers who all seem to suffer from an insane lack of understanding.  While they manage to keep their romantic involvement somewhat of a secret, the discovery of their journal by a fellow student named Soh Min-ah (Kim Min-sun), leading to speculation and a fabrication of their evolving relationship.  This spirals the film into something incredibly non-linear in which viewers may find trouble attaching moments to their proper moment in time, particularly when scenes involve both the lovers, as well as Soh.  It is only when we witness Soh secluded reading the diary that we can assure a present state, but it moves to their moments of intimacy with such instantaneous fervor that it is never certain.  Eventually, it is revealed that despite an initial bond, Shi-eun becomes somewhat distancing towards Hyo-sin who she sees as becoming far too attached to be a healthy relationship, going so far as to sleep with a male teacher as a means of assuring that the two will have a child together.  This drives Hyo-sin over the edge causing her to commit suicide, expecting Shi-eun to follow along as part of a suicide pact made earlier in the film.  Of course, Shi-eun does no such thing and attempts only to exist and distance herself from her past choices.  This leads to Hyo-sin haunting the school for the latter portion of the film, at times possessing Soh since she is key to bringing the entire narrative to light, considering that she possesses the journal.  The film ends rather abruptly as the ghost distances itself from the school and we are again shown a moment of Hyo-sin and Shi-eun engaging in young romantic affairs on the school's roof, as though the events to follow were just a troublesome figment of their young and vibrant imaginations.

This film has received a lot of criticism, and deservedly so, for not sticking to a central cinematic concept, especially the films third act which is exceptionally frantic and damn near impossible to follow.  However, I would contest that the films message requires this sort of ambiguous and non-linear format to drive home issues of oppression and ignorance.  The relationship we are shown is created through not a factual account per se, but a gleaning for emotive notes written in an equally non-traditional diary, one full of pictures, phrases and hidden pockets, but rarely of any flat out writing.  Hyo-sin clearly struggled to explain her feelings for Shi-eun, just as she ponders existence when reading her poem for class.  She cannot properly categorize her feelings for another girl, because the societal constructs not only do not allow her to possess such feelings, but, in fact, completely lack a language to describe such moments.  The narrative reinforces this both by the hateful language spouted by the oppressive forces within the film, as well as by creating a narrative that is not traditional in its construct.  At times Memento Mori reads more like a feminist experimental film or a piece of Third World Cinema, something more inclined to deal with the intersectionalities considered in this work.  Sure this film masks itself in a horror film at its closing moments, I imagine some of that is likely to be a result of nitpicking producers, however, despite its problematic genre location, Memento Mori is very much a film to be grounded and admired within the constantly growing and emerging Gay and Lesbian cinema.

Key Scene:  The moments on the rooftop are sweet and sentimental, something not often shown in Korean cinema.

This is a great film and one worth checking out, unfortunately, it is a bit hard to come by via Netflix, but Amazon has decently priced copies at the moment.

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