Review © Mandi Apple, 2003.

Directed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong, 1999, 98 min. starring Kim Min-sun, Park Yeh-jin, Lee Young-jin and Baek Jong-hak.

Following the box-office success of the South Korean school ghost-story Whispering Corridors (known as Yeogo Goedam in Korea), a follow-up was released in 1999, entitled Memento Mori (aka Yeogo Goedam 2, or Whispering Corridors 2). However, fans of the original were sure to have been disappointed, as Memento Mori unfortunately seems to be not so much a sequel but an entirely different film altogether. With none of the original cast members on board (even though the ending of Whispering Corridors was clearly left wide-open for a progression of the story), much less the original writer/director Park Ki-hyung, boasting a completely different, less character-driven plot and even a different school altogether, it is entirely unclear as to why anyone should class this as a sequel.

(Editor's note: since writing this review, we have been kindly informed by the extremely erudite and knowledgeable Christian Dorris that in the realm of Asian film-making, sequels which only deal with the same kind of subjects, rather than a concrete progression of a story, are quite commonplace and there is frequently no solid link between the two films other than a general theme - thank you for setting us straight, Christian!)

The only real similarity between the two films is that they both deal bravely with traditionally taboo and awkward subjects. In the case of the original, Park Ki-hyung took a courageous stand against teacher brutality in South Korean schools, a position which nearly resulted in the outright banning of Whispering Corridors by the national school board. In the case of Memento Mori, the two directors Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong have elected to portray a much less violent educational institution (although whether that was with an eye to the reaction of the national school board following the previous fracas is anyone's guess), opting instead to tackle teenage lesbian relationships in all-girl schools, and the prejudice and hysteria such relationships provoke, from both staff and students. This film is more of an emotional and psychological exploration of real life in such a school than its predecessor's savage socio-political indictment.

That said, it doesn't mean that Memento Mori is necessarily a bad film. Falling somewhere in the space between two well-established genres - traditional ghost-story horror and teen romance - the worst thing you could say about it is that it really fails to do either aspect any justice. The horror scenes seem oddly tacked-on, and in places, clearly drawn from the Ring well of inspiration (note in particular the curse-like qualities of the lovers' shared diary, and the very Sadako-esque appearances of Hyo-shin in the second half of the movie), whereas the romance isn't explored in any true, meaningful depth.

However, the acting quality is generally as good or better than the slightly inferior script allows - in particular, Lee Young-jin turns out an excellent, emotionally understated performance as one of the featured lovers, Yoo Shi-eun - and the camerawork is outstanding, giving the film a very slick, stylish look. The ghost scenes are fairly well-handled, but they're few and far between, and the teen-tinged flavour of them detracts from any really good chills.


‘The first day a girl dies with her head emptied out... perhaps she had remembered the truth...
... The seventh day a girl is going to die... perhaps.'

As in Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori is set in a South Korean all-female school. This particular school, while still holding pretty firm to the dubious teaching practices of the original school, doesn't appear to reach quite that level of violence and brutality directed at the students. It's suggestive that there has been some small improvement in standards, but as yet, not nearly enough; the old attitudes have been muted, but not yet stamped out.

The story begins with the making of a special diary by a student, Min Hyo-shin (played very well by Park Yeh-jin), to chart her romance with a fellow student, Yoo Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin), filling the little book with photographs, poems, flowers, drawings and hand-crafted little bits and pieces... but during the making of the book, Hyo-shin incants some pretty weird ritual spells and items into the pages, as a protection of their somewhat tenuous, secret and very intense relationship which had developed even as far as a degree of telepathy between the two girls.

Hyo-shin is already one of the most unpopular girls in the school: classed as having been a geek in her previous year, she is frequently the brunt of psychological torture and bullying, although she is a talented pianist and composer. Shi-eun, an athletic, mostly silent girl, is regarded more with mistrust and suspicion than out-and-out hatred. She has her own problems: her specialty is track events, which her doctor has ordered that she must give up, due to a hearing impediment which is swiftly worsening.

Another student, a popular girl called So Min-ah (Kim Min-sun, also giving a good performance), gets an opportunity to steal the diary (which is rather stupidly and for no apparent reason just left lying on top of a wall). As she herself would seem to have a crush on Shi-eun, she's naturally curious about its contents, and about the secret relationship, which seems to have ended rather unpleasantly, as the two girls are consciously avoiding each other. However, whilst reading the book, she discovers a cryptic message inside it, along with a little candy and a direction to '... take this if you're bored of life'. Again, completely inexplicably, she does, and then of course finds a message on the next page telling her the candy was spiked with a slow-release poison, and the warning, '... you'll die if you stop loving me'.

However, Hyo-shin and Shi-eun would seem to be temporarily reconciled: they agree to try and start over again. Their first break-up was due in no small part to the fact that Hyo-shin had slept with one of their teachers, Mr Goh. To this end, after a choir practice session during which Shi-eun begins hearing some very strange and spooky sounds in her damaged ear when Hyo-shin is around, Hyo-shin gives Shi-eun a cryptic clue as to where she's going to hide her next anniversary present to her, by playing one of her own compositions to her on the piano, and then cutting one of the strings. She tells Shi-eun to remember the tune, as it will prove to be significant later on. And then she hides a small bottle with two pills in it inside the piano...

But both Shi-eun and Min-ah are now experiencing strange sounds and visions connected to Hyo-shin. On the day scheduled for the entire school to have a physical check-up, after social pressure from both students and teachers following their public annoucement of the relationship via a rather ill-advised public kiss, as well as the not inconsiderable fact that Hyo-shin is pregnant to Mr Goh (which becomes public as well, thanks to Min-ah having overheard the conversation between the two girls in the school sickroom and then confessing to her gossipy clique), Shi-eun and Hyo-shin go up to their secret trysting-spot on the roof, and Shi-eun breaks up their relationship completely...

...and at that very moment, Min-ah sees a strange vision of Hyo-shin walking up the corridor, just as a scream is heard. All the girls rush outside to find Hyo-shin's bloody corpse lying on the ground: she has committed suicide by jumping off the roof.

And Min-ah's visions are getting worse: she hears Hyo-shin's voice telling her to give back the diary, and sees her ghost all over the school, as well as having feelings of constantly being watched. And when she gets over her shame at having stolen the diary and reads it again, she finds some more weird stuff: a curse in the form of a distorting mirror, which shows both herself... and the face of Hyo-shin. Terrified, she turns over the page and finds a message detailing how to break the curse by incanting the words 'Memento mori' ('Remember the dead' in Latin)... but the incantation is not a protection, and in fact it is the very spell to open the door and bring in Hyo-shin's ghost so that she can have her revenge on all the people who tortured and tormented her... but is there more to it than that? And will anyone survive Hyo-shin's vengeance?

In summary, my problem with Memento Mori is that too many issues are being handled at once: the love story suffers from being almost completely abandoned the moment the curse action kicks in, and the horror is muted by the romantic aspects the directors have tried to work in with it. In this case, I don't think it was a good move to try and make a film on both levels, as they don't appear to really work together too well - one or the other of the elements was always going to suffer, but by attempting to make them parallel themes with equal importance, both suffer. You're left wanting more depth, more insight into both aspects, and only getting a superficial and weakened bit of both.

Part of the trouble also is that the film is resolutely non-linear. While Whispering Corridors explained its frenetically complex plot through use (or maybe overuse) of the flashback device, Memento Mori seems to jump from one time period to another, backwards and forwards, without any in-plot cross-referencing or any sense of present-time, which can make you feel a bit dizzy and leave you totally confused and disoriented. It's only after the film has ended can you actually tie any story together that makes sense of certain scenes. And there are obvious set-ups, totally inexplicable and ill-thought-out plot devices that just don't make any sense whatsoever, which can leave the viewer feeling frustrated. Don't get me wrong - it is a cleverly-written story in the same fashion as Whispering Corridors - but it takes several viewings and some afterthought to catch all the disparate themes.

The one thing that actually does carry some importance in this film is that much of what is portrayed (bar the parapsychological bits) is normalcy, the state of affairs in pretty much any single-sex school, not just in Korea but in the rest of the world. It's an interesting, worthwhile, beautifully-shot-and-soundtracked insight into that closed world of burgeoning hysteria, hierarchy, humiliation, trips on the hormone rollercoaster and true bitchiness you don't often encounter elsewhere. But if you're looking for either a weepy-type chick-flick or a really scary chiller, you won't find what you're after here.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 8/10
Weepy value: 7/10
Violence: 4/10
Blood and guts: one lurid example
Shock Factor: 2/10
Cursed diaries left lying around: 1
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: one large bottle Heinz, which looks oddly pink thanks to VCD compression

Memento Mori Wallpaper

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2002

Snowblood Apple Filmographies:

Lee Young-jin
Park Yeh-jin
Kim Min-sun

Links: - the outstanding official site for the French release of the film, with synopsis, cast information and biographies, posters, a downloadable Quicktime trailer, reviews and much more besides [French only] - the official Cine2000 film site, beautifully made, with an .avi trailer for download, lots of pictures, information about the cast and crew, a BBS messageboard, chat room, and a library of clips - get your Altavista Babelfish mojo workin' because it's [Korean only] - and here's an excellent Korean site dedicated to the movie,very comprehensive with a nice image gallery, scripts, reviews, articles, downloads and loads of links to your favourite stars' homepages [Korean only] - great review, with images and a nice poster [French only] - as ever, a spot-on review from the Asian Film Gods at KFC Cinema - Dead Time's excellent and incisive review of the film - we like his self-description too :-D - a graded review plus some images - interesting insight with some good cultural references concerning just how this film relates to Korean society - Greg Muskewitz likes it a lot... - ... as does Peter A. Martin... - ... however, Nixflix doesn't. Can't please all the people all the time, I guess ;-) - or, When Korean Film Attacks! Great review, some nice images and production notes to boot

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