Internalised shame leads to tragic, unforeseen consequences in landmark South Korean horror Memento Mori (여고괴담 두번째 이야기, Yeogogoedam Dubeonchae Iyagi). The second in a thematic series of high school ghost stories, the film was radical for its time in its presentation of same sex romance in demonising not the love but the world that would not accept it while otherwise painting a fairly bleak picture of the educational landscape in which teachers are only ever symbols of a corrupt authority intent on enforcing oppressive patriarchal social codes.
The film’s heroine is in many ways an audience member, or at least a fairly passive observer of the ongoing drama who only later inserts herself into the narrative. Min-ah (Kim Min-sun) discovers a mysterious “diary” near the sports ground and is quickly hooked on its cryptic contents even before realising that it details a lesbian relationship between two of her classmates who were at one point “close” but have since “drifted apart”. The author, Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin), is already considered “weird” by her classmates and does seem to have an otherworldly quality, most particularly in her tendency to speak in an uncanny manner. She is also accused of being a “lesbian” by an obnoxious fellow student laying bare the way these teens already enforce a social prejudice which oppresses them all.
Min-ah’s friend Yeon-an (Kim Jae-in) has been fasting for the last few weeks to try and get her weight down before the school’s physical health check up, while Ji-won (Gong Hyo-jin) is similarly concerned with her chest measurement. This is an all girls school, and there is a clear preoccupation with the ability to conform to notions of conventional femininity while all of the teachers that we see aside from the school nurse are male and enforce discipline with quite shocking levels of violence. Yeon-ah and Ji-won land up in trouble for playing around with a video camera they’d brought in to record choir practice when it’s discovered by a teacher who reacts as if he thinks the girls are on some kind of whistleblowing mission. He clearly feels that his authority has been questioned, which also implies that he knows his behaviour is “wrong”, and punishes the girls for their “rebellion” against him.
After Hyo-shin dies in an apparent suicide, it is rumoured that she may have been pregnant which would certainly explain her desire to get out of the health check. In a flashback, she suggests that she may have drifted into an inappropriate sexual relationship with a dejected teacher, Mr. Goh (Baek Jong-hak), who claims that he doesn’t get on with his “materialistic” colleagues while fed up with the vacuous teenage girls he’s supposed to be teaching. Yet Mr. Goh appears to have suffered little after Hyo-shin’s death despite being the apparent father of her unborn child, leaving only Hyo-shin’s vengeful spirit to enact some kind of justice.
It’s Mr. Goh who did in some way disrupt the relationship between Hyo-shin and Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) who seems to feel on some level betrayed while deepening her inner conflict as regards her sexuality. Unlike the other girls, Shi-eun presents in a slightly more masculine fashion, not least because of her athleticism, and is filled with an internalised shame about her relationship with Hyo-shin which she otherwise does not share. In the dreamlike scene which opens the film, Hyo-shin and Shi-eun are plunged into water tied at the ankle by the red string of fate which in popular mythology signifies a true romantic connection. But as they fall together, Shi-eun begins to panic and unties herself. She violently pushes Hyo-shin away who then continues to sink into the murky depths below. This act of physical rejection is repeated several times, most notably when Hyo-shin kisses Shi-eun in front of their classmates shortly after she has been struck in the face by their teacher. Shi-eun pushes her away, and thereafter ignores her before directly stating that she is “ashamed” and does not care what Hyo-shin decides to do with her life.
It’s this rejection that the film posits as the cause of Hyo-shin’s suicide, though the romance itself is constantly overshadowed by death. Obsessed with the diary, Min-ah eats a “magic” sweet stuck inside which is described as some kind of love poison for which Hyo-shin has an antidote, only in the climax of the film it seems to be the reverse and a kind of prelude to a double suicide. In the dreamworld created by Hyo-shin’s spirit, the schoolgirls assemble for something that looks a lot like a wedding though ostensibly a birthday party in which the couple is accepted by the world around them only in reality it can never happen in part because Shi-eun herself does not permit it to.
Directors Kim and Min hint at the feverish atmosphere with blown out whites and strange angles even before entering the menacing dreamscape of Hyo-shin’s revenge, lending a note of unsteadiness to Min-ah’s obsessive investigation of the diary that perhaps reveals something of herself even as it draws her towards a dark spiritual destiny. In any case, what it leaves behind is a deep sense of melancholy for tragedy of the teenage lovers who in the end maybe the ones haunted by the world around them.
Memento Mori screened as part of this year’s Queer East .
Trailer (English subtitles)