Hangul: 여고괴담 세 번째 이야기 : 여우계단
Romanisation: Yeogo goedam 3: Yeowoo gyedan
Release Date: 01st August 2003 (South Korea)
Running Time: 97 mins.
Writer: Kim Soo-A, Lee Yong-Yeon, Lee Shin-Ae, Lee So-Youn
Starring: Song Ji-Hyo, Park Han-Byul, Jo An, Park Ji-Yeon, Hong Soo-A, Kwak Ji-Min, Moon Jung-Hee
The Wishing Stairs seeks to add to the Haunted Girl’s School franchise with an entry leaning away from the drama that has proven to be the strength of the series and more towards horror. It might have been an exciting and bloodthirsty reboot for a franchise that focusses but the horror is mishandled and the drama did little to move me thanks to distracting elements.
Kim So-Hie (Park Han-Byul) and Yun Jin-Seong (Song Ji-Hyo) are close friends at a ballet school but when the school holds a competition aimed at promoting one student to go to a national competition in order to gain a scholarship to a Russian ballet school, Jin-Seong finds herself seized by intense jealousy as So-Hie is being promoted above her. When she hears rumours of the wishing stairs from Eom Hye-Ju (Jo An), a girl who was once overweight but lost a lot of weight overnight, Jin-Sung decides to try her luck with the stairs. The staircase next to the school dorm only has 28 steps but if you believe hard enough a 29th step appears and a fox spirit grants your wish. What Jin-Seong does not realise is that the wish, once granted, has a sting in the tail.
The Wishing Stairs follows a similar pattern to the previous instalments where school life is detailed, a friendship is focussed upon and an inciting incident occurs to spark off a supernatural invasion for the final part of the film.
The action takes place in the studios, corridors, classrooms, and dorm rooms of a new school. This time it is a ballet school! Things feel much more stagey than Memento Mori with conventional camera movements and editing but the location is evocative with the modern school contrasting with a great creaking dormitory complete with grandfather clock and windows that open a little too easily and allow all sorts of things inside. Nearby the girls walk up a winding stairs covered in dead leaves with dying bushes either side of it.
The focus in this instalment is how rivalry distorts friendship and whether it is better to die than to have your love reject. The use of a ballet school is a good fit. Much like Black Swan, the film uses ballet and the sight of girls working hard to become the prima ballerina to comment on the tough education system. Teachers and students both repeat the mantra “You need to practice till it kills you.” The few dance sequences have the ring of verisimilitude while also allowing a door to the dark side of obsession to open. Students play psychological games like faking an injury or hiding one to protect friends. The film works on building these ripples of obsession into one that can make a person murderous.
Wishing stairs, please grant my wish
The film’s efforts at charting the feelings of the characters are a little underwhelming thanks to a script which skimps on character details and scenes of rivalry. I am not asking for a dance-off like For Love’s Sake but a little more detail on the blood, sweat and tears involved and how the drive to win affects everything. The relationship between Kim So-Hie and Yun Jin-Seong is thinly sketched but Jin-Seong’s upset is summed up succinctly with the line “You make me feel miserable”.
She is certainly miserable enough to try asking the fox spirit for help! For anybody who has read W.W. Jacob’s classic tale The Monkey’s Paw, they will know that wishes in horror tales tend to backfire.
The Wishing Stairs shares the same structure of the previous films before things go absolutely insane. Everything starts off low-key. The initial wish is rather neatly handled with the camera tracking the girl from a distance, cutting between a close-up on the girl’s face then legs as she climbs the stairs, eyes closed and quietly counting the number, the audience holding their breath that as suspense mounts then a cut from her legs to her face as she gets to the 29th step, a look of exultation signalling success. The effects of the wish are not immediately visible but are a good fit, linking in with the reality established and the emotions of the characters.
Things build up with increasingly standard horror clichés like a bloody shower, mysterious hands and spectres sighted out of the corner of the eye but this time there is a nice ballet twist which gives things some flavour, witness a pirouetting ghost stalking its victim and dead bodies artfully posed in ballet moves. It is well handled until the final ten minute haunting where there is so much stuff happening that any sense of continuity and atmosphere break down as scenes crash into each other and things become muddled. I was unimpressed as I was yanked out of the tale and began to notice how the ghost was strikingly similar to Sadako in look and actions and the soundtrack had discordant electronic music similar to Kenji Kawai’s score for Ringu.
I may criticise the script for being light but Park Han-Byul and Song Ji-Hyo bring enough nuance and warmth to their characters that they become sympathetic especially when there were some really heart-breaking and embarrassing moments. Eom Hye-Ju is the one element that disrupted the film for me. Even though her storyline brings into focus the sense that not having love returned is crushing, she was a major distraction because her character is unbelievably inept and piggish (she even makes snorting sounds when eating!). She could have been tragic, an ostracised innocent with a morbid obsession with So-hee, the only girl to show her kindness, but there is no attempt to humanise her. She is more comedic than realistic, Jo An’s performance would be better seen in something like Petty Romance.
The Genki Christmas Season 2012 got off to a great start with Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori proving to be complex and deep movie experiences that mixed a little horror with a lot of realistic and rather touching drama. Memento Mori became a favourite so it was no surprise that The Wishing Stairs was a little underwhelming. I cannot say that the film is bad. Technically it is excellent and it has solid acting but is hampered by a light script and poor horror elements. That said it did enough to entertain me.
3.5/5… 4/5 if I am feeling generous.