MEMENTO MORI (1999)
Directors: Kim Tae-yong & Min Kyu-dong
Genre: Supernatural horror
Run time: 1h 37m
Whispering Corridors sequel surpasses its original with a more stylish and refined return to the high school ghost story
When Whispering Corridors was released in 1998, it signalled the start of the modern K-Horror film, offering a creepy and supernatural take on Korea’s demanding education system.
While horror sequels offer focus on the concept of more – more deaths, more blood, more gore – Memento Mori instead offers a more polished incarnation of its source material.
If Whispering Corridors was ahead of its time, Memento Mori the following year is an even more positively modern horror-ghost story, one that is not directly linked to its predecessor in narrative, but is able to take its best aspects and amplify them.
It was also a bolder view of LGBT issues than many Korean films of its time, making two schoolgirls in a relationship the key narrative hook, a controversial device for the time.
Those high school students – Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) and Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin) – find that their taboo relationship pushes them to the fringes of school life.
While Hyo-shin finds herself increasingly reliant on Shi-Eun, this only causes Shi-Eun to distance herself from the intensifying relationship.
Fellow student Soh Min-ah (Kim Min-sun) then becomes invested in the fortunes of this contentious coupling when she finds a diary kept between the two girls.
The diary offers insights into the relationship, but also triggers a darker passage of events in the school.
This supernatural psychological horror is aided by a better paced central story and is bought to life artfully by a host of superb performances across the entire cast.
It is a subtle and festering film. It remains restrained for most of the runtime, building towards a final act with a sharper edge than its set-up.
While Whispering Corridors took aim at the draconian Korean school system by featuring harsh and violent teachers, Memento Mori tackles the issues of gender segregation in the national school system and the tendency for schoolgirls to repress their worries.
Such internalised issues are embodied in the supernatural elements that haunt the school and cause the events which plague the film’s final act.
There is a delicate treatment of the same-sex relationship, but one that does not shy away from some onscreen intimacy. This would have undoubtedly caused some ‘pearl-clutching’ at the time, especially with events unfolding in a school setting.
A word of caution for the red-in-tooth-and-claw horror fans hoping to see blood cascading from the screen, while this is still a spooky supernatural horror, it is just as much an arthouse drama. A film which focuses on the dynamics of the Hyo-shin and Shi-Eun relationship as much it does attempts to scare you.
Many horror film franchises peak at their introduction. For this expansive series – Whispering Corridors (1998), Memento Mori (1999), Wishing Stairs (2003), Voice (2005), A Blood Pledge (2009) and Whispering Corridors: The Humming (2020) – it could be argued that its second installment warrants such a peak.
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