If South Korean movies set in high school have thought me anything, it’s not to go to high school in South Korea! If the teachers aren’t beating the living hell out of you on a whim, there are pissed off ghosts all over the place. Or at least that’s the conclusion one might draw after seeing the “Whispering Corridors” series, about ghosts that were former students haunting their former school filled with sadomasochistic teachers.
At the original release of 1998’s “Whispering Corridors”, government censors in South Korea attempted to ban the film, apparently worried about its depiction of brutal teachers and the dreary, suffocating interpretation of the educational system. But the film was released and became a commercial success. Part two’s “Memento Mori” followed much the same formula as the first, and it would seem the latest, “Wishing Stairs”, hasn’t deterred from the original concept either. To wit: the films are set exclusively in and around an all-girls school with no traces of the “outside” world; two girlfriends buck the school system by defying convention; a pissed off ghost looking for payback roams the hallways; and teachers that make WWE wrestlers look like wimps roam the classrooms.
But despite its opening, you wouldn’t think “Whispering Corridors” was much of a ghost movie. As the film opens, a teacher is murdered by the ghost of Jin-ju, a former student who had taken physical abuse from said teacher in her schooling days. Although the school claims the teacher committed suicide and attempts to hush up the matter, rumors spread among the students that Jin-ju’s vengeful ghost is responsible. Entering the fray is ex-student Eun-young (Mi-yeon Lee), who has returned as a teacher. Of the students, there is the supposed psychic Ji-oh (Gyu-ri Kim), the mousy new girl Jae-yi (Se-yeon Choi), and the classroom weirdo Jung-sook (Ji-hye Yun).
Soon other classmates come to the forefront, namely the pretty and popular (with her classmates as well as the teachers, if you know what I mean) So-young (Jin-hie Park). Being that she’s popular and pretty and knows it, So-young is shallow and flippant about her future. When asked by a teacher what she plans to study in college, So-young dismisses the notion of studying, claiming that just graduating from the college of her choice is enough of a “gold card” to ensure her future. All this leads to this conclusion: “Whispering Corridors” is most effective when it plays out as a straight Teen Drama, with all the trials and tribulations of the various students as they attempt to survive the school system. As a cutting critique of the suffocating and hierarchal nature that is the South Korean educational system, the “Whispering Corridors” series is extremely effective.
Unfortunately the enterprise was billed as a horror movie, a notion that the first two films in the series that I have seen have problems living up to. Aside from some maybe-maybe not glimpses of the ghost Jin-ju for most of its running time, “Whispering Corridors” has little interest in being a horror film. Co-writer and director Ki-hyung Park tries to infuse “Corridors” with a “haunting” soundtrack meant to illicit a sense of dread and doom. Of course it’s a bit hard to feel “dread and doom” when nothing very much in the way of “horror” is happening. Park also keeps putting the focus on weirdo Jung-sook, whose character becomes the token red herring. In fact, Park shows absolutely no subtlety whatsoever when it comes to Jung-sook.
Not surprisingly, the first non-horror half of “Whispering Corridors” is also its best. Like “Memento Mori”, one can’t help but feel that this is a franchise that should have been a Teen Drama about girls trying to survive an unforgiving and cutthroat system while keeping their spirits and hopes intact. Alas, we get a goofy horror wannabe about pissed off student ghosts instead. Even the film’s second half, which promises more horror bangs for our buck, is a big letdown. The ghost remains mostly MIA, only to show up towards the end to explain the film’s big plot twist. Normally even the most dumbed down Asian horror film manages to creep me out at least just a little. “Whispering Corridors” can’t even give me that. The phrase “as scary as stale cheese” comes to mind.
And then there’s the matter of the Eun-young character, who is supposed to be the film’s anchor to the past and the mystery surrounding the ghost. If anything, Eun-young reminds me of the female lead in “Ring 2”, who spends the majority of the film walking to and fro, sitting down, then getting up to walk to and fro some more, looking lost in thought the whole time. Also, for a teacher she doesn’t actually do a lot of teaching. I wonder if the kids in her classroom is always wondering where the heck their teacher has wandered off to now, since she seems prone to aimless wandering around the school grounds. And here’s a bit of nonsense: why in the world would you return to teach at the same school where your best friend hung herself?
While I found “Whispering Corridors” to be scare-free and entirely pedestrian in its attempt at being a horror movie, I must give it credit for one guilty pleasure: Unlike it’s sequel, at least this original had the decency to kill off the movie’s most disgusting character. I guess that counts for something. Doesn’t it?
Ki-Hyung Park (director) / Ki-Hyung Park, Jung-Ok In (screenplay)
CAST: Se-yeon Choi …. Youn Jae-yi
Gyu-ri Kim …. Lim Ji-oh
Mi-yeon Lee …. Hur Eun-young