The Voice

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The Voice                                                                             Voice Film Poster

Hangul: 여고괴담 4 : 목소리

Romanisation: Yeogo Goedam 4: Moksori

Release Date: 20th July 2005 (South Korea)

Running Time: 104 mins.

Director: Choi Ik-Hwan

Writer: Choi Ik-Hwan, Sul Joon-Suk

Starring: Kim Ok-Vin, Cha Ye-Ryun, Seo Ji-Hye, Kim Seo-Hyung, Lee Eun, Lim Hyun-Kyung, Jun Ji-Ae, Kim Sung-Tae, Nam Sang-Ran

This is the fourth instalment in the Whispering Corridors series and the directorial debut of Choi Ik-Hwan who was assistant director on the first film of the series, Whispering Ghost School Horror DVD CaseCorridors. The Voice is the final instalment in the Tartan Ghost School Quartet Box Set so I wanted it to be a really good film and it was, beating back any negative feelings invoked by Wishing Stairs and establishing itself as my third favourite Korean horror movie behind A Tale of Two Sisters and Memento Mori.

Sun-Min (Seo Ji-Hye) misses her friend Eun-Young (Kim Ok-Vin) after class and goes searching for her. She finds her singing in the school’s music room. Eun-Young wants to stay longer so she can practice but she is disturbed by another person singing and then a mysterious shadowy figure begins to torment her. She finds herself pursued and then killed, her body disappearing. The next day Sun-Min is concerned by her friend’s absence but when she starts hearing Eun-Young’s voice coming out of nowhere she is terrified. She quickly adapts to the situation and discovers that Eun-Young’s spirit is trapped in the school. Eun-Young makes the plea, “I can’t disappear without knowing why I died.” With the help of fellow student Cho-Ah (Cha Ye-Ryun), a girl once in a mental hospital, Sun-Min seeks to unravel a supernatural mystery which centres on the music teacher Hee-Yeon (Kim Seo-Hyung).

This is the fourth in the Whispering Corridors series and is about questioning whether we can truly ever know a person or even ourselves. It is done with a close up of three school girls and a brooding and probing use of the supernatural in a mystery narrative.

The Voice Sun-Min (Seo Ji-Hye) and Eun-Young (Kim Ok-Vin) Wander the Corridors

 

The twisting mystery takes place in a mostly linear manner (with a few flashbacks) over five days and mostly in the location of a modern school where students are told, “The purpose of life is achieving satisfaction. You have to work hard”.

Like in the previous films the school system is demanding but instead of being exploitative or authoritarian as in the previous films, it is a little laid back (only a little) and this time it is about the lengths people will go to achieve personal satisfaction. The key to mystery of why Eun-Young died is intrinsically linked to her behaviour in her past life, the degree of her search for satisfaction and those it hurt. Solving it reveals some insights for all involved with the characters and audience learning some things.

The Voice Cho-Ah (Cha Ye-Ryun) Offers a WarningThe film plays on the audience’s need to identify with the protagonist and plays with our perceptions of the characters and Sun-Min finds out some unpleasant truths about her friend. As Cho-Ah tells Sun-Min, “a ghost remembers only what it wants to” but is Cho-Ah to be trusted? Is Sun-Min as good a friend as we suppose? The script is good at planting doubts in our minds as we follow their investigation.

The girls are empathetic. This is not a case of character assassination as motivations are complex and even when callous behaviour is revealed they never totally lose sympathy. Part of our connection to them is because we get some really good takes on a supernatural haunting that Eun-Young undergoes. As a ghost, Eun-Young discovers the horror of being trapped in the school as real time unfolds. She is alone all night and is constantly awake, these scenes are unnerving because of some of the things that she sees and they help gain her sympathy. What happens is a stylish character piece which, while not as good a drama/film as Memento Mori, it is a far scarier prospect.

The Voice  Eun-Young (Kim Ok-Vin) In School at Night

The haunting starts straight away and is woven into the story alongside the drama which makes the use of the two seamless. Within the first few minutes Eun-Young is killed by a poltergeist which has a knack of causing excessively deadly paper cuts. It is done with a certain stylishness continues throughout the film. Mise-en-scene is perfect. There is a crisp look to the film, shot in a nostalgic amber hue where details are in focus and we can see everything including dust motes in the air and different shades of darkness. CGI is used tastefully as part of ambience of scenes or in conveying the exploration of the past as characters and external locations fade in and fade out of school corridors in stylish sequences that extend towards the horror.

The Voice uses well thought out sound and camera techniques and ideas to generate a horror atmosphere. When Eun-Young realises she is a ghost, the sound drops out and we see her looking bewildered. Her presence causes static in electronic devices (as supernatural presences are supposed to do) and the sound of her voice fluctuates as she tries to talk to Sun-Min. There are subtle things like shadow of a head will emerge from behind a person in medium shots, along with phantom hands and ghostly duets can be heard singing out. Unlike the previous films there are moments of outright terror in this that made me sit bolt-upright, heart hammering and head ringing. One scene takes place in an elevator, the doors opening to a corridor filled with shadows that are a devastating shade of black as a voice can be heard in the distance.

The Voice Sun-Min (Seo Ji-Hye) and Eun-Young (Kim Ok-Vin) In the Elevator of Death

 

The only problem with the film is an ending which reaches for shock and ruins the story that had been built up. Apart from the ending I liked the film a lot what with the good acting and excellent set design and direction.

I have come to realise that the strength of Korean ghost stories is not in making me jump up in fright but in creating a story dripping with atmosphere which leaves me choked up on emotions and gaining new insights into humanity. The Voice did not necessarily achieve these lofty goals but it was scary at points and it is an extremely well-crafted film and intriguing entry that examines the problems with persona, subjectivity and memory in an entertaining way. The film is beautiful and visually engaging and I never lost interest in it once.

4.5/5

The Doll Master

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The Doll Master                                The Doll Master Poster

Hangul: 인형사

Romanisation: Inhyeongsa

Release Date: 30th July 2004 (South Korea)

Running Time: 90 mins.

Director: Lee Myung-se

Writer: Lee Myung-se, Lee Hae-jyung

Starring: Ha Ji-won, Gang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang, Yun Ju-sang, Do Yong-gu

Writing a review for The Doll Master has been frustrating because I was so uninspired by the film. Despite the great looking DVD cover and poster and the fact that dolls are creepy (as seen in Three Crowns of the Sailor¹) I found it to be a dull experience.

A woman is travelling to a doll gallery deep in a forest. She is a sculptor named Park Hae-Mi (Kim Yu-Mi) and she finds herself among a group of people including Hong Jung-Ki (Lim Hyung-Joon) a photographer, and Jeong Yung-Ha (Ok Ji-Young) a novelist, who have been summoned by Choi Jin-Wann (Cheon Ho-Jin), director of the gallery and Im Jae–Won (Kim Bo-Young), the doll maker. Park Hae-Mi and the others are there for two days of photography which will be used as the basis to make new dolls. As they make themselves at home and wander the halls, they notice that there are dolls everywhere and they seem to be watching them. When Park Hae-Mi encounters a mysterious girl named Mi-Na (Lim Eun-Kyeong) who claims to have known her all her life, Park Hae-Mi finds herself embarking on a night of terror.

Or she would be embarking on a night of terror if the film was capable of finding an even tone.

The film is a mix of horror and mystery. As is becoming quite noticeable with K-horror, there is a mix of drama in every Korean horror film I have watched thus far. The weakest films tend to have the worst drama as is proven here. The Doll Master starts off confidently enough with a brief historical sequence in 1940’s Korea with a tragic love story between a doll maker and a woman in a kimono. It is here that we get an interesting bit of Asian folklore which shows how an inanimate object can get a soul if people show love and dedication and become attached to it. The inanimate object in this case is a life-size doll. The film then fast-forwards to the future where a diverse group of characters are invited to a cathedral-like doll museum which is where the mayhem involving murderous dolls takes place.

The Doll Master Yeong- Ha(Ok Ji-Young)

The idea is great. Shame the script is rather poor.

Continue reading “The Doll Master”

Wishing Stairs

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Wishing Stairs             Wishing Stairs Film Poster                                                  

Hangul: 여고괴담 세 번째 이야기 : 여우계단

Romanisation: Yeogo goedam 3: Yeowoo gyedan

Release Date: 01st August 2003 (South Korea)

Running Time: 97 mins.

Director: YunJae-Yeon

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.

Wishing Stairs Grip

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.

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Memento Mori

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Memento Mori                                                        Memento Mori Film Poster

Hangul: 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 /  여고괴담 II

Romanisation: Yeogo goedam II

Release Date: 24th December 1999 (South Korea)

Running Time: 98 mins.

Director: Kim Tae-Yong, Min Kyu-Dong

Writer: Kim Tae-Yong, Min Kyu-Dong

Starring: Kim Gyu-Ri, Park Yeh-Jin, Lee Young-Jin, Baek Jong-Hak, Ki Jae-In, Kong Hyo-Jin

A year after Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori continues the franchise with a bitter tale of love, rejection and isolation that causes an outbreak of supernatural craziness in another all-girl’s school.

Min-Ah (Kim Gyu-Ri) is late for class when she discovers a diary which records the strange and obsessive world of the writer who is at the same school and is in love with a fellow pupil. As Min-Ah reads the diary she discovers what she thinks are sweets. After taking one of them she reads a suicide pact and becomes ill. Min-Ah heads to the school clinic where she witnesses class nerd Hyo-Shin (Park Yeh-Jin) and athletic Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) share an intense conversation before disappearing. With a physical exam due for her class, Min-Ah heads off to join her friends but the check-up is disrupted by the death of Hyo-Shin. What happened? Can the diary explain things? Is Min-Ah poisoned? What are Hyo-Shin and Shi-Eun hiding?

Out of the entire franchise Memento Mori has to be my favourite and not because of the lesbianism which caused a bit of a stir when it was released in Korea but because much like Whispering Corridors the film has a complex and emotionally moving story. (Minor character related spoilers ahead)

It opens with a beautiful and distinct visual of two school girls sinking in a pool of water, the red string of fate¹ tying them together by their ankles until one girl panics, unties herself and kicks away to the surface leaving the other to sink.

Memento Mori Red Thread

This intriguing opening leads to a tale with psychologically complicated and realistic characters which gives all of the actions an acutely personal and painful edge.

Wanna write a diary together?

Memento Mori takes place in an average school. For most of the film the viewer observes the goofy behaviour that school kids engage in from pulling faces at each other, pushing each other around, making embarrassing videos, general larking about and gossiping. Accompanying these mostly innocent actions is the intense feeling of togetherness felt by pupils and, for some, a burgeoning sexuality. It all means much more to two students who exchange meaningful glances and what seem like telepathic thoughts between each other but can their love be realised in such a hot house environment sharp tongues and conservative mindsets? Min-Ah stumbles upon this illicit love with the discovery of the diary and like her I was drawn into this world.

Memento Mori Min-Ah (Kim Gyu-Ri) Finds the Diary

While the film takes place over the course of a day the non-linear narrative distorts the temporal space of the film since it incorporates Min-Ah’s reading of the diary which allows past and present to co-mingle along with the obsessive fantasies of the writer. This leads to the director inter-cutting between events creating an off-kilter atmosphere which draws us into the diary and Min-Ah’s increasingly unhealthy curiosity about the love between the girls in the diary.

The relationship between Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) and Hyo-Shin (Park Yeh-Jin) is given to us in fragments through the diary but remains moving thanks to the performances and the dedication to realistic characterisation. There is a sense of innocence and playfulness to the relationship but the lesbian aspect of it means that it becomes problematic in the lives of the two girls and one feels it more acutely than the other.

Memento Mori Intense Stare Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) and Hyo-Shin (Park Yeh-Jin)

Park Yeh-Jin as Hyo-Shin gives a brilliant performance which reveals that she is used to being ostracised for being smarter than others. She is beautiful and elegant and intelligent but this is hidden because of the nature of (almost any) school is that anyone who stands out Memento Mori Hyo-Shin tries to Avoid Speaking (Park Yeh-Jin)becomes a target for bullies and gossips. The reluctance to stand out is shown aptly in one sequence where a teacher gets her up in class to recite poetry. In a medium shot she drags herself out of her seat and recites. While speaking we see it in a medium shot and are aware of other’s eyes on her as the soundtrack catches snatches of jealous whispers are caught behind her back. Behind the quiet façade is a girl surging with passion and invention and daring which she reveals to Shi-Eun.

“The world is made of sounds. People have their own tune. Together they can make harmony or dissonance.”

Whenever the two find themselves alone together they discover a mutual attraction but while Hyo-Shin becomes increasingly dedicated to Shi-Eun the feeling is not mutual as Shi-Eun seems to have doubts as to their relationship. As the film progresses Hyo-Shin’s passion becomes manic and almost stifling which drives Shi-Eun further away and into acting out harsh behavior.

Memento Mori Shi-Eun (Lee Young-Jin) Stares BackLee Young-Jin as Shin-Eun has a slightly more masculine look with her tallness, sharp features and athletic build. Her performance is mysterious and tough. She also has coolness and a slight teenage sullenness about her which makes her seem apathetic to reality. At her most open she has a warm and playful side but she wears a false mask and relies on a certain distance to protect herself. As the idea of illicit love becomes more threatening to her we see the character become more guarded, her smile does not come as easily as in earlier scenes and you see her wanting to physically pull away from others.

I found watching the two interact revealed something beautiful and something painful about teenage love and I shared Min-Ah’s growing curiosity although, thankfully, I avoided the supernatural activity. As the film played out I was distinctly moved by the unfolding events.

Complexity in character and script is matched in direction.

The same observation of the students I mentioned earlier also serves to chart the rejection and humiliation faced by the couple in the diary. In one horrendous scene there is a POV shot that show gossips staring directly at a character while another physically and emotionally intense scene has a camera circle 360 degrees to show the fallout of the action. Techniques get a lot more complicated, especially when the haunting starts.

Throughout the film the scares are mostly impressionistic and lack a visceral edge. There are glimpses of spectres in uniform, doors opening and closing, and ghostly laughter over the PA system but it is not as scary as it sounds but the interesting parts are the more hallucinatory experiences especially as Min-Ah comes under the influence of the diary which takes on a supernatural edge. There is one great sequence with Min-Ah where time lapse is used and everyone passing is sped up almost into a blur while she remains sitting, rooted to the spot by a supernatural force that has dragged her from her everyday surroundings into a supernatural bubble.

When supernatural chaos breaks out the film loses a degree of coherency as it cross-cuts between a lot of action scenes. There are lots of dolly shots as hundreds of extras dash about trying to escape some (light-weight) supernatural scares. I found that this did not detract from the overall story since the characters, actors and the way the story was filmed with its great direction, had moved me. When the final credits ran I admired it, including the ending, for its drama more than the supernatural elements. Take out the haunting and make it a psychological tale and it would still work. I had come to care about the characters and wanted them to be happy regardless of their gender.

5/5

¹Red thread of fate? They are destined to be lovers. It is a scene that is sexy until you watch the making-of.

Whispering Corridors

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Whispering Corridors                                     Whispering Corridors Movie Poster

Hangul: 여고괴담

Romanisation: Yeogo goedam

Release Date: 30th May 1998 (South Korea)

Running Time: 107 mins.

Director: Park Ki-Hyeong

Writer: Park Ki-Hyeong, In Jung-Ok

Starring: Lee Mi-Yeon, Kim Gyu-Ri, Choi Se-Yeon, Choi Gang-Hee, Kim Min-Jung, Kim Roe-Ha, Kim Yu-Seok, Park Jin-Hee, Yun Ji-Hye, Park Yong-Soo

Schools are a popular location for horror tales from Suspiria and Carrie in the 70’s all the way to Death Bell in 2010 and the anime/movie Another in 2012. South Korea has contributed some of the best titles specifically with Whispering Corridors which was made around the same time as The Ring and is one of the titles attributed to the Asian horror boom in the west. Heck, when I was in high school during this boom I was more than aware of Whispering Corridors but I only watched it for the first time while doing this season.

1998, South Korea. A 12th grade homeroom teacher named Mrs. Park is looking through records when she makes a startling discovery. She calls fellow teacher Eun-Young (Lee Mi-Yeon) about a person named Jin-Ju but before she can fully explain her discovery the phone is cut off and she is attacked. The next day a group of students including quiet girl Jae-Yi Yoon (Choi Se-Yeon) and artist Ji-Oh (Kim Gyu-Ri) are part of the class cleaning crew and see Mrs. Park’s corpse and are horrified. It looks like suicide but rumours spread about the ghost of Jin-Ju, a former student. A teacher named Mr. Oh (Park Yong-Soo) makes them promise not to spread rumours, promising severe punishment, but when another death occurs, a terrible mystery unfolds.

Before watching Whispering Corridors I was aware of its reputation and the fact that it had spawned something of a franchise with four sequels, each of which has the title Yeogo goedam which literally means Girl’s High School and is set in that location. What did I make of the original?

Pretty good.

This sounds like damning with faint praise but it reflects the fact that I had expected a horror film and got something which is less about scares and more about creating a complex ghost story with a believable set of characters.

Whispering Corridors New Friends Jae-Yi (Choi Se-Yeon) and Ji-Oh (Kim Gyu-Ri)

I hate going into an empty classroom. It’s creepy.

The whispering corridors of the film are located in a moss covered school surrounded by bracken choked greenery. It is shot under harsh light of daytime and in the darkest of blacks of night. The film has a chilly, wintry feel where life has been sucked out and the students feeling the pressure retreat into themselves.

Whispering Corridors Ji-Oh (GyuRi Kim) Faces Off Against Mr Oh (Park Yong-Soo)Indeed, the students attending school are less concerned with their surroundings and more concerned with their fellows and superiors. Teachers walk around with canes, meting out physical punishment and playing psychological mind-games designed to pit students against each other so they try and beat each other in grades. The most notable offender is Mr. Oh, a truly loathsome character who likes to pontificate and physically beats and molests his students. He sums up the brutal atmosphere with one line, “I know you are all excited about making friends. I advise you to get rid of that cheap sentimentality.”

If that sounds over the top it is for a reason.

I prefer ghosts

The film has real depth when you know the history of South Korea. Preceding the making of Whispering Corridors, South Korea entered a new period of democracy with the end of its authoritarian military dictatorship in the early 90’s. The subsequent liberalisation of the movie industry and of movie censorship allowed artists in the South Korea’s wave of new film schools to explore challenging subjects and themes including addressing the politically tumultuous years. The film’s director Park Ki-Hyeong and writer In Jung-Ok insert many scenes that criticise and challenge conformity and authoritarianism.

The authorities running the school can be seen as analogous to the dictatorship. The groping teacher, the heavy threat of violence, the conformity this engenders and the code of silence being enforced are all menacing and it was not long before the setting seemed less like a school and more like a prison camp where lectures feature group punishment and the beating of pupils in between quasi-political messages. It is no wonder that the students find the place horrific.

Whispering Corridors Prison Camp

The film is visually conventional but uses its conventionality to capture the way students are isolated, set against each other and the hatred that wells up. The camera pans between two former friends as they exchange the most surreptitious of glances. There will be the use of a high angle shot to suggest observation of the supernatural kind or judgement. The vicious behaviour of Mr. Oh is shot in uncomfortable close-ups.

The main character Ji-Oh has an air of believability as a teen with her spiky personality, burgeoning independence and the sense exasperation of having people rely on her. She is not quite the non-conformist but her dyed hair and rock music single her out. She is tough and defies teachers at points and as the film progresses, she shows real humanity by befriending a fellow student who is looked down upon by others. She is the new generation and is the one who tries to heal the wounds of the past and cure the problems with authority… as long as people can change.

Whispering Corridors Ji-Oh (Gyu-Ri Kim)

If the point of a film is for a story to introduce us to a world and find a way of allowing the audience to interpret reality then Whispering Corridors does it very well but despite all of this what matters most of all is the ghost story.

Like any good ghost story it has an air of mystery, guilt and sadness. The haunting and the unfolding tale of tragedy is linked to the harsh conditions of the school. It is believable, though slightly melodramatic, and sad in its telling. The ghost is sympathetic and more than justified in wanting vengeance as it strives to punish all those perpetuating the loneliness and misery of the school. There is not much gore but the palpable emotions felt by characters can be tough to wade through and while it has nothing comparable to the bravura scare scenes of The Ring or Audition the film is still compelling thanks to the complex characters and the dread atmosphere of the location.

Indeed, the moments of terror are relatively few and far between. There are a few jump-scares like exploding windows and a ghost which can transport itself from different places (via jump-cuts). There is also a lot of blood although it is quite tasteful and even beautiful in one scene. I would be lying if I said I found it scary but I did find it well handled and heartfelt which makes it quite an interesting title.

4.5/5