The landmark Korean ghost series “Whispering Corridors” returns for its fifth instalment with “A Blood Pledge”, marking the debut of director Lee Jong Yong, an interesting choice for the helm, given his previous work under Park Chan Wook on the likes of “JSA” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”. The film continues very much in the tradition of its predecessors, being set at an all-girls school, dealing with contemporary themes and concerns of friendship, and of course presenting a new set of up and coming young actresses no doubt hoping to follow in the footsteps of former “Whispering” alumni Kim Min Sun, Kim Ok Bin, Kim Kyu Ri, Seo Ji Hye, and Choi Kang Hee. Interestingly, the film not only performed well at the domestic box office, but is the first of its brethren to have been mooted for a possible Hollywood remake.
The plot begins in suitably morbid fashion, as a young girl called Eon Joo (Jang Kyeong Ah) throws herself from the school roof, landing right in front of her unfortunate sister Jeong Eon (Yoo Shin Ae). It quickly becomes apparent that there was more to her death, and Jeong Eon learns that she had signed a suicide pact with three other girls, including her best friend So Yi (Son Eun Seo). No doubt annoyed that none of the others joined her in dying, Eon Joo returns to haunt them with increasingly threatening visions, seemingly determined to drag them down into the grave with her.
As with the other films in the “Whispering Corridors” series, “A Blood Pledge” is a contemporary affair with a social conscience, with its young cast not only in danger from the ghost, but from each other, parental violence, teen pregnancy, bullying and betrayal. Although never really explored in much depth, the suicide theme is interesting and depressingly relevant, and the film delves into adolescent relationships and issues far more than simple angst and problems with boys.
Friendship plays a big part, as usual with subtle lesbian undertones, and director Lee makes a genuine effort to develop at least some of his characters rather than merely defining them through their trials and turmoil. This makes the film far more involving than the average ghost film, and indeed as a whole it verges on drama and character study rather than out and out horror. As such, it recalls the second film in the set, “Memento Mori”, to which it works well as a spiritual successor, revolving around a similar flashback rich mystery and having the same air of ambiguity. This does mean that it gets pretty sad in places, and is a melancholy affair in general, with an ending far more emotional than that of the vast majority of more straightforward teen melodramas.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t pack in the scares, with Lee thankfully never forgetting that it is at least in part a ghost story. Most of these work well, mainly thanks to the fact that the film has a somewhat edgier style than previous entries in the series. Although it would be going too far to call the film naturalistic, stylistically it is markedly more grounded than its peers, and this helps to make the sudden intrusions of the supernatural into the real world all the more effective and jolting. Lee shows a good use of light and shade, and manages to generate an ominous atmosphere throughout, giving the school a fittingly faceless and surreal aspect.
The film also features some impressively versatile camera work, with a number of sweeping shots over the rooftops which help to make the most of the tense suicide threat scenes. The ghost herself is good value, being a creepy, blood soaked and enthusiastic figure, and since it becomes clear early on that she is likely to appear at will, and not simply in dark corridors when characters are alone, the film is taut and involving. Whilst never particularly nasty, there are a handful of scenes likely to be gruesome enough for its target audience, especially since the viewer actually cares for the victims.
As a result, “A Blood Pledge” is not only one of the best entries in the “Whispering Corridors” series, but is one of the more entertaining and affecting Korean horror films of the last few years. Certainly, it offers far more substance and genuine emotion than most recent genre efforts, and though its frights and motifs may no longer be as cutting edge as they were when the original made its debut back in 1998, its fusion of teen drama and ghosts is still a potent and gripping one.
Lee Jong-yong (director) / Lee Jong-yong (screenplay)
CAST: Son Eun-seo, Jang Kyeong-ah, Song Min-jeong, Oh Yeon-seo, Yoo Shin-ae, Park Jeong-yoon