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Whispering Corridors

Review © Mandi Apple, 2002.

Directed by Park Ki-hyung, 1998, 105 min. starring Choi Se-yeon, Kim Gyu-ri, Kim Yu-seok, Lee Mi-yeon, Lee Yong-nyeo, Park Jin-hie, Park Young-Soo and Yun Ji-hye.

English transcript available here.

This year, we here at Snowblood Apple have had the interesting experience of watching the very best and the very worst of two very similar films from the fairly limited school ghost genre – Whispering Corridors, from South Korea, and A Frightful School Horror, from Japan – and awarding the honours for once to the Korean movie, which poops all over the pitiful Japanese attempt from a great height.

Directed by Park Ki-hyung, Whispering Corridors (aka Girls’ High School Ghost Story, or in its original Korean form, Yeogo Goedam) was released in Korea to a wave of controversy and attempts at censorship. Indeed, the film portrays an all-female school filled with such brutality, sexual abuse and violence directed by teachers at pupils, the national school board tried to ban the film’s release outright. Thankfully, they failed, and so the movie went on to become one of Korea’s biggest box office successes, spawning a later sequel, Memento Mori (aka Whispering Corridors 2, or Yeogo Goedam 2: Memento Mori), an equally brave and controversial film dealing with many of the same themes as the original movie, but also with homosexuality in single-sex schools.

This film shines through the usual glut of glib teenage screamers partly because it works on so many levels: socio-political commentary, an understanding of the natural hierarchical order within schools (all-girls’ schools, in particular), urban legend and even a philosophical look at the nature of friendship. It also works on a purely entertaining level, with a tight script, great quality acting and directing, atmospheric cinematography and, most importantly, a fascinating psychological ghost-mystery-whodunnit-thriller-suspense story, crammed with red herrings and false leads, and also with a sad, moving, and terribly bleak undertone.

Synopsis

‘School can be horrible and stupid for both teachers and children: you can have such bad memories, almost like witnessing a tragic death…’

Whispering Corridors is set in a fairly typical all-female school in Korea, called Jookran High School For Girls, and the story begins on the night before the first day of the new school year. A female teacher called Mrs Park (better known by her unaffectionate nickname ‘Old Fox’ on account of her nasty behaviour and treatment of the students), has discovered something mysterious and weird concerning a late pupil of the school called Jin-ju. Jin-ju had committed suicide in the school’s art rooms nine years previously, and her ghost was said to haunt the art rooms which had been closed up after the incident.

She tries to call her new colleague, Hur Eun-young (played admirably by Lee Mi-yeon), who is a former student of the school, and Jin-ju’s best friend, and tell her what she has found out, saying “…Jin-ju is definitely dead… but she’s still attending school!” However, before she can explain about her discovery, she is attacked and murdered, and left hanging in the schoolyard.

The first people to make this gruesome discovery the next day are three girls just beginning their senior year; a timid outsider called Youn Jae-yi (Choi Se-yeon) and a confident, talented young artist, Lim Ji-oh (Kim Gyu-ri), who are the new class monitors and therefore obliged to carry out early-morning classroom cleaning before school; and a weird, sullen, deeply unpopular girl, Kim Jung-sook (a chilling and sad performance by Yun Ji-hye), who the other girls believe has been possessed by the fabled spirit of Jin-ju.

All the girls are of course shocked and upset to make this horrible discovery; it upsets Ji-oh so much that she feels the need to paint a portrait of Mrs Park’s death, to try and get the disturbing image out of her head cathartically through her art. However, the girls are told to hush up the incident as much as possible so that the press and school inspectors don’t begin to research the school’s affairs – especially since violence and psychological/physical abuse are pretty commonplace in this particular school.

The rumours begin flying that Jin-ju, who was bullied during her school life by Mrs Park, has come back to exact her revenge on the teachers who made her life such a misery; Mrs Park had been victimising Jin-ju on account of the fact that her mother was a psychic and a shaman, traditionally thought to be a kind of jinx and carry bad luck and death wherever they go. Obviously, since the gossips already think that Jung-sook is possessed by Jin-ju’s ghost, she is the prime suspect for the killing, particularly as she was the first person to enter the school that morning, even before the class monitors.

Sadly, Jung-sook is not the only suspect at the mercy of the school gossips; Ji-oh is also well-known among the girls as a ‘psychic’ who can summon spirits in séances (as pretty much everyone knows, there are always a few kids in every school, who attempt to perform levitations or ouija board readings, and who are viewed with the same kind of fascination and suspicion as Ji-oh). One of the more popular kids, a bright and pretty girl named Park So-young (Park Jin-hie), persuades Ji-oh to hold a séance to find out if the spirit of Jin-ju really is the culprit.

The séance is however broken up by a teacher, Mr Oh (played really revoltingly by Park Young-Soo) whose nickname, ‘Mad Dog’, reveals his truly evil nature – well known among the students for dishing out beatings to those he doesn’t like, and sleazing on those he does like. He informs the stunned class that he will be their new form master; and a few days later, after discovering Ji-oh’s painting of Mrs Park, he beats her and smashes up her painting in front of the class to humiliate her and ‘make an example’ of her, and also bans her from the art department completely.

In the meanwhile, Jae-yi and Ji-oh have become good friends, united by their love of art. Jae-yi had previously offered to coach Ji-oh’s skills; but since Ji-oh is banned from painting in school, they decide to use the old, abandoned art rooms which are forbidden to students… but why does the psychically sensitive Ji-oh suggest hanging out in the legendarily haunted art rooms? Will Jin-ju’s spirit return to take revenge on Mr Oh for beating Ji-oh? Why does Eun-young keep having visions of her old, dead best friend, and hearing the sound of bells across the school? And who really is the murderer, and how can they stop her from taking her bloody revenge?

Ultimately, if you’re looking for gore and guts, you won’t find them here. Sure, there are lots of bloody scenes, but they seem to be there in order to set the general atmosphere. Even the ghost story isn’t particularly frightening. What is horrifying, though, is the portrayal of real evils within the Korean school system; from our standpoint in the UK, if a teacher so much as touches a student, they are fired and never again allowed to teach. However, in the film, there are several instances of teachers physically beating young girls for extremely minor misdemeanours, sexually harassing them, and even making them carry out janitorial duties (as seen near the beginning, the class monitors have to fill kettles with hot water and scrub the floors and walls), and no-one (maybe except the new teacher Hur Eun-young) seems to bat an eyelash. According to Park Ki-hyung, this kind of event is pretty much standard in South Korean schools.

And that’s where the true horror is in Whispering Corridors: this film asks a lot of hard questions, to which the school board could only find an answer in attempting to have the film banned. It’s a slow-paced, moody film with many resonant images and an eerie atmosphere, so if you’re also looking for a fast fix of horror, you’ve come to the wrong place. But it’s probably the most essential film that has ever come out of Korea, so if you feel frustrated by the slowness of the action and give up on it, you’re really missing out on a gem. Anyone who’s ever looked back on their own school days with horror, revulsion or sadness will not fail to be touched and reminded of their own difficult past experiences by this film.

NB: apparently Whispering Corridors is very hard to find with English subtitles, in any format. We here at Snowblood Apple were lucky enough to catch the film with subs when it was shown on UK satellite channel FilmFour Extreme in the early part of 2002. We've finally finished our transcript of the subtitled FilmFour version, which you can read here.

However, if you fancy doing your own subbed copy, you can pick up two timed sets of English subtitle files for the movie at http://kloofy.vze.com/ - there's also now uploaded there a version of our transcript, which was timed (with huge personal effort) by MomoNyo and hence is now available for use with any unsubtitled copy.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 8/10
Sleaze: 11/10 - Mr Oh's ear pinching scenes are particuarly stomach-turning
Violence: 8/10
Red Herrings: countless
Shock Factor: 5/10
Knife-wielding schoolgirls: 1
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: during the last scenes, the entire output of the Korean tomato farming industry
***Highly Recommended***

Whispering Corridors Wallpaper

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2002

Snowblood Apple Filmographies:

Park Ki-hyung
Lee Mi-yeon
Kim Gyu-ri
Park Jin-hie
Park Young-soo

Links:

http://twtd.bluemountains.net.au/Rick/liz_girlsghost.htm - simply the very best synopsis, review and analysis of the movie available on the Net, without whose vital information concerning the cast we would never have been able to complete our filmographies properly - a big thank you to Liz for publishing her great site!
http://www.yichenmovie.com/movie2/placard/country/korea/in/page_02.htm - download the movie poster here
http://www.koreafilm.net/films/whispering/whispering.html - there's a decent page about the movie here, with a plot outline, a review and a small image gallery
http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/Ki-Hyung.html - an interview with Park Ki-hyung about the movie and his career in general
http://koreanfilm.org/actors2.html - some interesting info here about Lee Mi-yeon

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