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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.