In an all-girl school somewhere in South Korea, one of the students, Min-ah, finds a red book lying next to a water fountain. The book is a diary. It documents the relationship between two of her fellow students, tomboy Shi-eun, member of the school's athletic team, and the free spirited Hyo-shin. As Min-ah flips through the pages of the diary she discovers, how these two outsiders found each other. They became friends, and then they became more than friends.
After this Min-ah begins to watch Shi-eun and Hyo-shin, who don't seem to spend time together anymore. Something happened that split them apart. In the diary Min-ah reads about the dark secret that caused the girls' separation, and while the two girls attempt to rekindle their relationship, Min-ah continues to observe them from afar, growing increasingly fascinated with the odd couple. But this is not a time for open-mindedness. Dark clouds gather over the school, as peer pressure and ignorance, force one of the girls to take drastic measure. She kills herself.
In the aftermath of this tragedy strange things begin to happen. The dead girl may be gone, but her spirit lingers. And it's not happy.
"Memento Mori" is the second part of the "Whispering Corridor" trilogy. But actually the three films aren't really connected. All they share is the "horror film on a girl school" label, beyond that there's nothing to tie the films together.
However, when you get right down to it "Memento Mori" isn't much of a horror film. Sure, there's an eerie feeling sweeping through the film, and there's also a ghostly presence, but it's light on actual horror mood and even lighter on straight shocks. Instead "Memento Mori" focuses on the three girls and their relationship. It puts all its efforts into this drama, and wastes only a miniscule amount of time trying to scare the audience. It's more at ease playing clever little eerie tricks on us. Like in the scene where Min-ah throws away the book, because she senses that something's wrong, only to find it lying right there on her desk, when she returns to the classroom moments later. Though, I should point out when "Memento Mori" does try to scare, it's usually very successful.
The film is constructed around the red diary, made by Shi-eun and Hyo-shin. The interesting thing about a diary is that it doesn't really reflect a person's life. You write when you're angry, frustrated or happy. You write when you're on the top, or at the bottom. A diary represents the high-points and low-points of your life, but all the things in between never reach the pages. Why write if nothing important happened, or if you don't have any particular feelings towards something?
Much like a diary, "Memento Mori" only shows us the poignant events of the girls' relationship. It leaves everything else to the imagination. When Min-ah is flipping through the colorful pages of the diary, her eyes are suddenly drawn towards a specific entry. The film mimics this feeling in the way it presents its narrative, which comes across as a broken train of thoughts, often taking scenes out of context and putting them together almost randomly. Almost. It's a challenging style to be sure, and it can be a little tricky to get a handle on the film, especially if you try too hard to put the puzzle together, but it works well for the purposes of this story. After all, love - regardless of how it manifests itself - almost never follow a straight path.
If it wasn't for a few spooks and a few deaths, "Memento Mori" could be regarded simply as a drama. As I mentioned previously, the focus is the relationship between Shi-eun and Hyo-shin. The film portrays their growing affection and subsequent break-up with an amazing delicacy. Teenage love is as fragile as butterfly wings, easily ruined by the clumsy touch of even the most careful filmmaker. And yet, this is where "Memento Mori" is most successful.
The film never gets too literal, when it deals with the relationship, which of course makes perfect sense, since the girls have little first hand knowledge of love, and are still in the process of exploring their feelings for each other.
The girls never make definite plans for their future, They never say exactly what it is they share. Even when they break up, they still haven't figured out what it was they had together. To the film's credit, it doesn't intrude on this sanctuary. It never asks the girls to explain themselves, to put words to their feelings, or to justify themselves to us, the audience.
"Memento Mori" also refrains from dealing with the physical and sexual aspect of the girls' union. I understand this is partly due to restrictions imposed by the censorship board. Supposedly the filmmakers did shoot some scene featuring the girls making out, but they were cut prior to the release. But in my opinion, this works for the film, rather than against it. Nothing makes a film tawdry and cheap quicker, than having two teen girls in school uniforms mac on each other. It's almost never justified. Often such scenes seem to be included solely for the purposes of audience gratification. The lack of on-screen sexual situations underlines the point that this is not about sex. It's about love.
The pitch perfect portrayal of this bittersweet love story is "Memento Mori's" greatest triumph.
SIGHTS & SOUNDS
This may be a simple little treat in many respects, but even so the wrapping sure is beautiful. "Memento Mori" has a natural unpolished feel to it, which is not to say that the film doesn't look good. It does. What I mean is, it doesn't look like it's constantly trying to look good.
Most of the film is shot with handheld camera. Not in a wild all-over-the-place style, but just slightly moving all the time. I'm not sure if this is a generally accepted term, but I usually refer to this style as "the breathing camera". It's almost as if the breathing of the cameraman himself translates to the images. It's a pleasant organic style that lends itself well to a character driven drama such as this.
And then there's the music. From the simple haunting piano theme, to the large-scale chorus pieces, the score flows through film and wraps itself gently around every scene, only to explode in a vicious spectacle of noise and disharmony, when all hell breaks lose in the climax.
Between the photography and the music, "Memento Mori" creates some unique and very poetic moments.
"Memento Mori" is an impressive film by any standards. It's a welcome change from the conventional Asian ghost stories and it's an interesting exploration of a difficult and forbidden relationship. At the same time it gives us a fascinating look into the dynamics of a Korean classroom.
This is not one of those films that hands us all the answers on a silver plate, but it's not afraid to challenge the viewer and try something different. Personally I didn't understand every little detail of the story. For example, I'm not sure exactly how to interpret the chaotic and violent climax, but it doesn't matter. As long as the film connects with me emotionally, I can forgive small shortcomings like that easily.
"Memento Mori" is not always a pleasant film to watch, in fact it's often quite painful, but I believe it's good for your soul to see a film like that every once in a while. "Memento Mori" will put a dagger in your heart and twist the blade slightly. It'll hurt, but there's one upside. At least you can feel if you still have a heart...