Introduction: Will you enjoy this film? How would you like to try to understand the inner workings of a real life human being that eventually grows into a horribly conflicted psychopath? What if the emotions of such were from a barely grown adult? If you were to become successful in sympathizing with this person, from your point of view it would be as if the rest of the world was insane, but not you. The irony of Whispering Corridors 2: Memento Mori (1999) is that from someone who feels like a psychopath, the world is most definitely consisting of complete lunatics, and not only that, but the setting of your world is not a jail, nor an institution, but the cruelty that is high school. This is the 1st film by both collaborating directors Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong. It has become a South Korean cult classic.
This film is the second of the Whispering Corridors series consisting of 5 movies. These movies are unrelated in storyline and characters, but all are considered to be of the K-horror genre and take place in exclusively female schools. Let me tell you right now that this film is the most famous (although still way overlooked), and the only one worth your time, unless you are an avid fan of horror that is. Horror fans will likely be very disappointed by this installment as it is not gory, nor scary. Its few moments of horror are fairly shocking and quite creepy for the average viewer however. Unlike many fright films, the horror aspects are used very sparingly and as a result more effective. Memento Mori aims to creep out and disturb it’s viewers rather than to use meaningless scare tactics. Its unfortunate that Whispering Corridors 2 was marketed as a horror picture, because its more likely to be preferred by as well as overlooked by art-house and independent film fans.
This film took me by storm 6 years ago, and has slowly become one of my more addictive and nostalgic favorites, whereas the others in the series for me personally are really a complete joke. Memento Mori on the other hand is a complex, layered and multi-genre film that is difficult to categorize. Its primarily a realistically portrayed character study, focusing on it’s core; a heavy-handed romantic drama. However, there are also elements of comedy, mystery, and horror discombobulated into it. Then again, you could also consider it an art house supernatural thriller. Are we not intrigued? Here is the Theatrical Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M1HzFFiUQU
Film Synopsis: Min-Ah (Kim Min-sun) is a naive student who discovers a lost diary at school. This diary is completely chock full of creativity, with realistic drawings, cut outs, hidden messages, secret compartments, small objects within, pages that unfold in 3D, photo collages, and even messages to people who it’s contents do not belong to. Its ownership is shared by her fellow classmates Hyo-Shin (Park Ye-jin) and Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin). It should come as no surprise that within this all girl Korean school that rumors fly a plenty (and my God I would feel completely out of place in this kind of tasteless environment). One of the rumors is that Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun are in fact lesbians, which remains to be seen. This is still very taboo and unaccepted by Korea’s standards today compared to other countries. Min-Ah becomes fascinated with the diary’s contents which reveal both students to not only have complex and secretive personalities, but are ones that she wishes to befriend. The book of memories that she keeps proves to be a double edged sword.
Soon, the entire school is struck with a serious blow, when the primary author of the diary commits suicide. This throws the schooling grounds into a increasing panic and confused distress. This suicide leaves a massively morbid impression on both teachers and students since the suicide takes place right on the schooling grounds in front of everyone. The very educational system in which they reside more than ever seems to be cursed as this is the 6th suicide that the school has had to endure. Min-Ah is shaken the most by the incident, not only because of her deeper knowledge of a dead person’s very thoughts but since her initial contact with this detailed diary, she experiences a barrage of unforgiving hallucinations that continue to haunt her, and even torment her with increasing hostility. Unfortunately for Min-Ah, she has become obsessed with discovering more about Shi-Eun and Hyo-Shin’s lives. Something very inexplicably horrible has happened. No one in the school knows the precise reason for the girl’s life ending deliberation. As the audience slowly but surely finds out why however, there is an air throughout the film, that something much more terrible is going to take place.
The Screenplay: Having 2 leaders who serve as both writers and directors is surely an advantage, but it no doubt creates many more conflicts and requires much more communication than a typical writer and director relationship. I’ll break the writing in Memento Mori into 2 parts. The first part of the screenplay includes the overall concept, the character development and the planning of the major events of the overall film structure. This is wonderfully done, with a lot attention to detail. Not only do I find it refreshing but it kind of perplexes me that Min Kyu-dong and Kim Tae-yong are in fact both males. Here they are not only writing stories about females, but potential lesbians. Sometimes a major reason women become interested in the same sex is because of how consistently terrible their previous male relationships were at understanding them; not the case here. You also have to be endlessly grateful that the writers/directors don’t reduce the possibility of a lesbian relationship to an unrelated boyish dumb male and typically meat-headed sex romp fantasy. That would have been kind of shameless and stereotypical. There are no nudity or sex scenes in Memento Mori, because it really doesn’t have much to do with the main themes of the film, which highlight some major problems with Korean society.
The second part of the screenplay is the lines, the actual dialog. These are not the most fanciful lines you will ever come across, and are far from perfect (although I am only drawing this from the subtitles). Fortunately these are children and many of them aren’t exactly fanciful characters, so the lines serve as a means to an end. I had a few pet peeves with the script, but there is one that really irks me the most.
There are many supernatural things going on in this film and one of them is telepathy. My biggest gripe that makes me cringe is the line read through the subtitles, “Wow, our telepathy is still working, but you insisted on not using it.” There is no need for anyone to explain what telepathy is, nor would the person be surprised if they have already practiced telepathy before. It also draws attention to the fact that we’re witnessing something that is normally impossible. It makes it sound cheap and ridiculous, and I remember a similar line being used in a more modern Godzilla movie that cracked me up when I first saw it. I have no problem with the fact that they are using telepathy, but if I were the writer I would have never uttered the word. I would have just had it happen without explanation. Explaining to anyone in the real world that you are using telepathy is always going to sound ridiculous. Now if you can stomach that, there are actually a few lines that are beautifully written, but most of the time they don’t have extraordinary wording. However, the content and subject matter of these conversations are very personal and they feel like real life, and that’s what counts. Also what draws your attention away from the more boring lines is the powerful delivery of them. The acting is excellent.
The Performances and Development of the Main Characters: This is where the movie shines the most. For a film that’s only 97 minutes long and contains many characters, it was wise for Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong to focus mainly on developing 2 major ones. Is this the best acting I’ve ever seen? Well, it’s not as if any of these people had to learn a new accent, or a different language, nor did they play roles that were total opposites of their own personalities, but who cares? Considering that everyone involved with Memento Mori are first time actors not to mention how ridiculously young this cast is, calling the acting impressive is an understatement.
Park Ye-jin’s portrayal as the complex and deeply troubled Hyo-Shin Min won her 2 awards as “Best new actress” from the Critic’s Association and “New Actress” from Baeksang Arts Awards both in 1999. I would also say that Kim Min-sun and Lee Yong-jin should definitely not be overlooked despite not having received awards simply because the main focus of Memento Mori is on Hyo-Shin Min’s character. Even in the unedited and unfinished director’s cut, both supporting actresses had several marvelous and substantially acted scenes that were cut from the theatrical version.
It is also notable that virtually the whole entire surrounding cast (which consists of maybe 11 main actors and at very least 100 extras) did its job effectively even if on screen for mere moments. Every main actress captured the carefree mischievousness, playful defiance, to even cruel bullying that so many students possess with believable realism. The mixture of childish foolery and unreserved cruelty made me feel as if I was vividly living High school again, and I’ve never even been to Korea. Surprisingly the weakest performances are from the teachers, the older actors, although they work and serve their purpose.
Hyo-Shin Min, the main character and most complex of this story, is fascinating because obsessively crazed psychopaths are rarely this lovable. She has two major relationships with Shi-Eun and one of her teachers Mr. Goh (Baek Jong-hak). It seems that anyone who befriends Hyo-Shin is abnormally close, which is understandable since everyone else at school seems to misunderstand her intentions. She questions authority with ease and has an adventurous imagination. When her creativity and assertive intelligence is revealed through a poem in class, she is hated by her classmates. In her chorus class her ability to play piano separates her from others, effectively putting her on a pedestal that possibly could instill more jealousy. Though she is taken back at first by her classmates reactions to her, Hyo-Shin’s obvious self respect and dignity are rarely thwarted by cruel and condescending individuals. It doesn’t take her long to ignore dogmatic gossip that is hurled her way, almost as if she is impervious to it. Rarely apologetic, outspoken, and opinionated she is firmly resolved in her beliefs.
As proud and independent as Hyo-Shin can be however, she is surprisingly sensitive, delicate, and fragile. This is most revealed to us during her moments of insecurity and even dependent desperation without Shi-Eun’s acceptance. She grows needy, paranoid, and even a bit controlling when she is lacking it. Without approval from her best friend, her fiercest defense mechanisms can be shocked, and become momentarily powerless. It’s a feeling that she truly loathes, and the re-gathering of her dignity or pride is where her carefully plotted insanity begins. The most shocking aspect about Hyo-Shin Min’s character however, is that by the end of the film her exacting brand of madness seems entirely justifiable, and hits home with our very personal sympathy for her.
Shi-Eun Yoo, a brute tomboy, is a devoted athlete as a track runner. She is secretively losing her hearing in fear of her coach forbidding her to run. Because of it, she daydreams often and is becoming more and more introspective as the film progresses. She is in a world of her own, perhaps more so than her best friend Hyo-Shin Min. She is also more independent, quieter, often bored, and disturbingly tough as nails. Her emotional intelligence and ability to regulate her own emotions is so far above everyone else’s (even the teacher’s), it’s kind of scary. For this reason she is way less externally expressive than Hyo-Shin, and most likely expresses herself within her own head and constantly. She barely needs anyone for the most part, or so she continually tries to tell herself.
Shi-Eun could easily convince you that she doesn’t care about what her peers think of her, but such reverse psychology suggests that she does very much. It is most likely the reason she is so driven in her love for running, which is to find acceptance and admiration while finding it independent and on her own terms. She needs to be free and dislikes being tied down. The further you get into Memento Mori, the more Shi-Eun seems to be losing her calm collected exterior. Her emotions of regret and sadness tend to be expressed through bottled up anger and careless defiance. There has been something deeply wrong with Shi-Eun’s upbringing for years, but during the events of the film, she is determined to bury all of her emotions and for the first time in her life it just isn’t working.
Min-Ah Soh’s character, is more often than not the perspective of the audience. The plot is told through her, so to give too much away about Min-Ah is to give away some of the major events. We learn less about her personally than the other two leads. Similarly to Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun her standards for her friendships are high and she is very loyal. However, she is pretty much the most innocent and naive girl in this particular school and it impairs her judgment in the people she associates with. Unlike Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun, Min-Ah is fairly popular as she is best friends with some well known trouble makers of the school Ji-won Moon (Kong Hyo-jin) and Yeon-ahn (Kim Jae-in). Min-Ah is fascinated by her new obsession of the journal to the point where it seems to be taking over her life. She wants nothing more than to become closer to Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun, but the more she learns of them, the more morbid hallucinations she has.
Dizzying Storytelling!: I didn’t have too much trouble with this, but often this movie is described as being told in a non-linear fashion. This isn’t exactly true. For the most part, it is almost completely chronological since when we have memories in real life, they’re in real time too, as opposed to camera flashbacks created just for the audience.
To my fellow opinionates who believe that the film is totally chopped up unnecessarily, Memento Mori is latin for “REMEMBER that you must die or that you are mortal.” Memories involve the very theme of the movie. Don’t forget that memories aren’t remembered chronologically, but are triggered by reminiscent reminders. There is a very obvious camera shot in the beginning that goes straight into Shi-Eun’s head, which of course is the source of her memories… What immediately follows is the appropriately timed title of the film on screen. Having said this, since Min-Ah has visions throughout Memento Mori, many of which may be difficult to pin as memories, hallucinations or both, this is understandably a challenging presentation to intake correctly.
At one point, Shi-Eun looks through the diary (somehow many people miss this single cue), and envisions five entries vividly one after the other, however there’s no way to know if the first entry happened before or after in relation to the other four. Not only that, but the five entries take place in three locations, so time jumps forwards in these memories twice without warning. Their connection is that they happened on the same day and location. This may sound unreasonable but after all, these scenes are presented to you the same way that you would read the highlights of your day from any diary. To make matters even more confusing towards the very end of the film, Min-Ah even has a dream that isn’t even really hers (that won’t make sense to you either without more knowledge), and it certainly isn’t a memory since it never happened. There are still even a little more memories towards the very end, so yes, this will be hard to keep track of for some, but if you enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Memento, this type of mental note taking will be a similar pleasure for you.
The Directing: I already touched on how Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong’s fantastic understanding on what’s it’s like to be teenage girl at school… which is kind of odd… However, we are thankful for it, since they sure didn’t pick an easy task for their directorial debut. Many, many scenes contain 12-35 actors on screen and every single one of them had to be instructed what to do during each shot. The more actors you add to a camera shot the harder it is get realistic performances from all of them simultaneously.
As if this juggling act wasn’t hard enough there are several scenes that involve about 100 extras, so even the simplest tasks certainly had to be well planned in advance. I’ve been an extra in an indie movie myself and it took them about 5 hours just get one shot of about 45 people on screen at the same time with decent reactionary performances. There is no doubt that the acting in this film had something to do with the Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong, especially since all of these we’re first time actors.
Cinematography: Whispering Corridors 2 was the winner of the Vision Award for best cinematography at the Slamdance Film Festival, LA, of the US. So yeah, there are all kinds of moving camera shots on rolling tracks, and cranes, as well as handheld angles. The DP Kim Yun-Su did a great job capturing these performances. The cinematography style also had the challenge of having to change styles based on the scene. For example some scenes are shot like a documentary or even purposely like a made for TV drama (not in a bad way). The result is a real-life feel much like reality TV. Others have that surreal cinematic thriller flavor that we all love and often get drawn into. There is some nature capturing frames of blue skies and surrounding scenery, as well as shaky over-the-shoulder angles following people around, which we see in many indie movies. So there’s some great ideas and gear shifting here. I will say that it isn’t perfect.
My one particular gripe is that the horror elements sometimes feel like they are trying to be horror scenes rather than being itself and refreshingly original. I’ve even read in an interview of how one of the directors had mentioned this. He said that when he had watched Memento Mori for the first time in years he was surprised that a few unprofessional shots that were used. He said that it was interesting to see how much he had learned since his debut film. All in all, the camera work here leaves any other Whispering Corridors movie in the dust where they belong. Never mind the series since 95% of the time the cinematography is fantastic.
The Score: The Original score by Jo Seong-woo is beyond ambitious with an immensely classical tone. My only complaint is how in Korean culture it is widely acceptable to use electric pianos as opposed to the real thing, even if you do have a full orchestra at your disposal. I feel the same way about the synthesized church organ that is used. Also, oddly enough there is a little electronica mixed in too. It’s good but it again suffers a bit from slightly plastic sounding synths.
However despite these subtly artificial timbres, my nitpicking sounds retarded when compared with how fantastically gorgeous this score is. Every single melody line is finely crafted and every note is memorable. It’s loaded with wonderfully understated piano playing, romantic violins and Gothic choirs, which ensues a lost kind of chill. This music will probably stay within my top 20 scores for years to come. Enough said. Listen for yourself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgEYXFGV67I&feature=related
Memento Mori & Donnie Darko: Many times I have been asked (and wondered) if there are any movies similar to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, and many suggestions I’ve heard are not even close. Richard Kelly himself has stated that Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, was the highest influence on his directorial debut, and yet it is loosely like it. So what film IS the most similar to Donnie Darko? The answer is NOT S. Darko! Lord no! Despite the fact that it’s not a Sci-Fi, and that there are of course some very, very, major differences (nor would I say that every Donnie Darko fan will love this), my answer is definitely going to be: Memento Mori.
I’m strongly considering writing a separate article to compare the many similarities. If I do write it, I will also discuss the many misconceptions about the ending of Memento Mori. Do you enjoy thinking, or watching movies more than once to prove your speculative theories? If you haven’t figured it out yet, the ending of this film, like Donnie Darko, is one that is interpreted differently from each viewer. As a result, some may be disappointed with Memento Mori’s “open ended” finale, and may not pick up on the meaning of the film. Many questions aren’t answered; or rather they’re not easy to make sense of.
On the Devil’s Advocate side, who might not love Memento Mori? I see this movie having a smaller cult following than Donnie Darko. Memento Mori was one of the 1st commercial Korean films that featured Lesbian themes. It’s still a more taboo subject than the USA’s standards. It didn’t help either that the sequel to Whispering Corridors was also targeted towards teenagers. As a result many traditional Korean views have constricted the movie’s fame and success to be seen worldwide.
Obviously some people may be turned off by giggling school girls who most likely listen to pop music. There is a scene in the movie Leon the Professional where Matilda is playing a “dress up” game, where she dresses up as different movie stars and Leon has to guess them. That scene made me feel awkward over how girlie it was. I definitely felt incredibly less bad ass watching that moment, although I absolutely love the Leon the Professional. There are similar moments in Memento Mori, but mostly in the beginning.
Once again, this is a confusing flick with lots of questions left unconnected for you to figure out; so many people won’t dig the ending. In fact I must point out that there is something fairly over-dramatic about the ending, but no matter how many times I see it I can’t figure out precisely why. I suspect that for some reason the way cinematography and music link up might be why it doesn’t work, where if you listen or watch them separately both are beautiful. I also hate a particular “large face camera angle” towards the end. I’ve narrowed it down to the fact the sky in the background is blue, but reminds me of blue screen (used for CGI) on a shot that obviously had to use it. Some may even view the ending as anti-climatic. The movie is also increasingly depressing (no kidding, suicide makes you happy right?). I would hardly categorize it as a melodrama but there are a very few moments that remind me of how many Korean soap operas are shot. I assure you I’m making that sound much more badly than it is, and I’ve read other reviews that have said there is no trace of stereotypical over-dramatic made for TV tear jerking. That’s surprising since, there’s a lot; I mean a lot of them are filmed in Korea.
Watching Memento Mori is kind of like watching lifetime, minus the sappiness, but on acid. …Maybe not a good illustration. Well, if you, like me, really loved Audition and thought that Black Swan was decent, watching this will mirror the same kind of sensitive elegance and simultaneous assault of brutal ugliness. The main difference in its delivery is that Memento Mori is more psychologically hideous than how Auditon or Black Swan resorts to visually graphic disturbances.
Final Thoughts: Memento Mori isn’t cinematic perfection, but like a flawed human, I love it just the same. Most people say their absolute favorite films are without absolutely no flaws. Memento Mori broke that line of thinking I once had. When I first saw it years ago, I thought about giving it 3 stars because I wasn’t sure exactly what I just saw. Many will feel the same. When I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I knew it was at least 4 stars. Now that I’ve seen it many times it’s become a no-brainer. The things that it does right, I rarely find and actively search for in other films, such as an abundance of coming-of-age acting, lifelike character development, a very realistic setting, personal dialog, real-life problems, and an original story that draws you in. Also, with the score, cinematography, and the wide crossbreed of genres, it makes for an unusual experience, and far outweighs the flaws that I’ve noticed.
Like the diary that Min-Ah finds, the film unfolds into a rather difficult puzzle, one that I’ve rarely seen (maybe even never) completely understood by fellow movie goers and critics. Even if you do understand how the ending resolves there are a few smaller but difficult mysteries along the way the film leaves for you to interpret and ponder. It’s truly a strange and even quirky movie with many different emotional responses to offer, and even if you don’t like the film, I doubt you will forget it. I’m fairly positive that few will love a cult classic like Memento Mori, but the hand full of people I’ve found that do, were deeply affected by it. Would I suggest that it be put into the Criterion Collection? Yes, without hesitation. Also, if I haven’t clued you in that some people really love this bizarre little story, the fans propelled the studio to convince the directors to release a ridiculous 6 Disc Ultimate box set of the film… …and they made one for them. Five Stars. I love this film.