The Lesbian Uncanny: Memento Mori (1999, Tae-Yong Kim and Kyu-Dong Min)
As part of (Im)possibly Queer International Feminisms the annual conference for the International Feminist Journal of Politics, GQC recently presented a panel on lesbian cinematic spaces. This article, on the 1999 Korean film Memento Mori, is the first in a series which we will be posting here.
Taking Jooran Lee’s statement that ‘Discussing Korean gay and lesbian films is like drifting in space without sunlight or oxygen‘ as a starting point, this article will address what happens when you have to discuss a film in this way, when there are constraints which appear to insurmountable. By considering a queer uncanny, and a main character who needs neither oxygen, nor sunlight, as she is a ghost, a new area of positive queer identification can be opened up for discussion.
The film takes place in a girl’s school, and concerns the lesbian relationship between Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun which ends in tragedy as Min Hyo-shin kills herself. The cadaverous presence of Min Hyo-shin following her suicide, renders her as both absent and present – her death plagues, haunts and saturates the homosocial space of the school. The fragmentary, non-linear narrative queers time and space, and this unsettling of the homely, and the familiar, shares a structure with the uncanny. By considering the figure of Min Hyo-shin, and her refusal to be erased, there is an argument to be made for queer centrality – by haunting the space, Min Hyo-shin is a positive presence, a voice who will not be silenced. This paper argues that by foregrounding the lesbian uncanny, this film transcends the traditionally exploitative and misogynistic horror genre and allows queer characters to step out of the margins.
Memento Mori is the second film in a loose series of Korean horror films, set in girls’ schools. This series, Whispering Corridors, uses horror tropes to uncover the structural violence inherent in these institutions, and to expose the brutal regimes which adolescent girls are subject to. Memento Mori’s strength is that it radicalises the popular ghost story genre in order to gain political ground. As Grossman and Lee state in their article “Memento Mori and other Ghostly Sexualities”, in New Korean Cinema: ‘The queer metaphysics of Memento Mori transcend both regional politics and the more conservative aspects of Korean film studies, allowing international viewers to imagine how emerging queer identities can operate in any culture that subjugates even feminine heterosexual identity’. Memento Mori portrays an explicitly lesbian relationship between the protagonists, Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun, and also portrays the gaze of their classmate Soh Min-ah, who eventually becomes possessed by the dead Min Hyo-shin. Just as in the first film in the series, Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori presents the violent and disruptive presence of death, as little more than a continuation of the already-occurring brutality of the school regime. The school seems cursed after Hyo-shin’s death, but then it always did.
The film is not told chronologically, but in a circuitous series of flashbacks which trouble the narrative sense of the film. This kind of non-linear, labyrinthine narrrative can be considered a queer strategy in itself. Alexander Doty’s use of the term ‘queer’ is a useful way to understand this kind of narrative approach. In There’s Something Queer Here, Doty says that ‘I am using the term “queer” to mark a flexible space for the expression of all aspects of non- (anti-, contra-) straight cultural production and reception.’ If we respond to this aspect of queer, we can see that Memento Mori not only has queer content, but uses queer modes of narrative in order to shift the binary modes of normative/ non-normative, marginal/ central, to create a kaleidoscopic effect. Min Hyo-shin saturates the narrative, whether she is alive or dead, and refuses to be marginalised in any way.
The film is subject to several hauntings, not all of them as positive as that of Min Hyo-shin. One of the major barriers to the relationship between Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun is the affair that Min Hyo-shin has with her class teacher Mr Goh. There is strong evidence that she is pregnant with his baby, and though she repeatedly tells Yoo Shi-eun that she doesn’t have feelings for Goh, and only wants to be with her, the baby acts as a patriarchal haunting, the product of a heterosexual relationship that cannot be denied. There are other kinds of patriarchal hauntings which saturate the film. A fragmentary, but repeated scene in which the girls perform a rendition of ‘Pie Jesu’ is a reminder of the Western Christian tradition, and the hierarchies and gendered implications which haunt the school. Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun interrogate harmony and dissonance, and though they are shown in the concert scenes to be in perfect harmony with the other girls, the tutors and the ethos of the school, in their private moments they disrupt and dissent. In once scene, Min Hyo-shin helps Yoo Shi-Eun to fake a hearing test with a tuning fork, in order to hide her encroaching deafness. By disrupting the brutality of the medicalisation and pathlogization of their bodies which is enacted by the institution of the school in this scene, Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun share a dissonant and dissenting moment in order to retain Yoo Shi-eun’s privacy.
Towards the end of the film, a scene is shown, out of sequence, where the two girls publically, and radically threaten the patriarchal underpinning of the school by holding hands in a classroom. Yoo Shi-eun is hit across the face by the tutor, so hard, that she falls down and her mouth bleeds. In response to this violent suppression of their visible intimacy, Min Hyo-shin responds by kissing Yoo Shi-Eun on the mouth. This spectacle is important, because it allows the queer relationship to become more central, and it shows the strength of the bonds between the girls, a strength which threatens the patriarchal order.
The cadaverous, or ghostly, presence can be seen as a queer force which disrupts boundaries. Elisabeth Bronfen says in her introduction to Death and Representation: ‘The cadaverous presence is such that it simultaneously occupies two places, the here and the nowhere. Neither of this world nor entirely absent from it, the cadaver thus mediates between these two incompatible positions.’ Psychoanalytic theorist, Parveen Adams, in her work The Emptiness and the Image, says: ‘The eroticized idealization of death, murder and the corpse in imaginative literature may function as a working through of ambivalent desirous and guilty impulses, seldom admitted to the surface of consciousness.’ This ambivalence is very much the case in Memento Mori, when Min Hyo-shin begins to haunt and plague the school, a comfort to those who love her, and a curse to the bullies who indirectly caused her suicide.
Another dissonance in the film is the between cuteness and horror. There are many examples of cuteness – the diary that Min Hyo-shin and Yoo Shi-eun work on together is covered in glitter and hearts and calligraphy, they share mixtapes covered in stickers. Lines from the diary like ‘First kiss smells of apples, on your tongue I’ve smelled blood’ and even one scene where a classmate shouts out ‘I’m cute, huh, fucking cute’ shows how dangerous this kind of atmosphere can be for young women, who are treated as though they are sexually immature and entirely passive. Sianne Ngai in her article The Cuteness of the Avant Garde theorises how cuteness can be a dangerous category: ‘We can thus start to see how cuteness might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones. For in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle’. By attempting to enact their lesbian desires through the medium of the cute diary, the girls are not given the chance to have a mature, autonomous relationship, they are constantly bound by strictures of cuteness and passivity. The stunting effect of this, can be related to the effects of the uncanny. One of the most disturbing elements of Freud’s essay on the uncanny is the section which describes the womb as the most unheimlich place of all for a man: ‘There is a humorous saying: “Love is home-sickness”; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself,still in the dream, “this place is familiar to me, I have been there before,” we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body.’ The uncanny, then, in one incarnation at least, is about a return to extreme youth, to a lack of independence, and to a place where there are no boundaries between self and other. The cute diary, which the girls share, is a regressive tool, an object of infantilisation, an immediate return to an uncanny state of being. Added to this, the diary has an incantation, Memento Mori, which Soh Min-ah says aloud just before she is possessed by the ghost of Min Hyo-shin. The sticker in the diary reads: Self portrait, peel off and you’ll see me. Careful you might regret this. Memento mori is the protective incantation. Memento Mori here is a return of the repressed, the remembrance that we must die. This remembrance of mortality, is made uncanny, by the fact that at the moment Soh Min-ah makes the incantation, her double, the dead Min Hyo-shin returns – death and its laws are queered and disrupted.
To conclude, it is worth returning to Lee’s statement that ‘discussing Korean gay and lesbian films is like drifting in space without sunlight or oxygen‘. The answer to this appears to be in the lesbian uncanny, where there is space for the production and expression of queer desire, and a chance for uncanny identification with a character who steps out of the margins, and foregrounds queerness, even after her death.