For whatever reason, I recently got a hankering to rewatch 여고괴담 – apparently incorrectly translated Whispering Corridors for its English language release (one presumes because “Girls’ School Ghost Story” just doesn’t grab you) – a 1998 Korean horror movie (probably the earliest one worth watching) that I happened to catch on TV one weekend while living in Seoul. I was pretty impressed with it at the time – but then I barely understood a word of it, and as anyone who’s learned a foreign language will attest anyway, everything is better in your target language. Jokes are funnier, music is catchier, books are more meaningful and, sure, movies are more engaging. Also, I didn’t see it all the way through, having flipped the channel to it about a third of the way in.
Wielding the magic of Netflix, I was able to make my dream come true today and … “conflicted” would be the best word, I think.
Let’s start with the story. It’s standard-issue Asian horror, as in ABSOLUTELY nothing new to see here. There’s a haunted school. The ghost is a former student who was … wait for it … bullied. We get to know four students through the course of the story. One of them is presumably the ghost, and it’s kind of fun trying to guess which. Furthermore, there’s a new teacher who happens to be a former student. No watermelon for guessing that she was friends with the bullied student way back when, ended up turning on her, and feels guilty about it. Oh, and a lot of the teachers really suck.
But you know what they say, cliched stories are cliche for a reason, and I’m firmly in the camp that would rather see an old story told well than an original story told poorly, so I’m not ex ante against watching a retread of Central Scripting’s high school horror story. An d you know, in a lot of ways Whispering Corridors does have a lot of new stuff to bring to the table.
For one thing, I can’t remember another Asian horror movie that was this overtly political. There’s definitely no feel-good message about being accepting of differences here – no sir, Whispering Corridors prefers to take the low road of showing all the warts of the authoritarian Korean school system just as they are. Students are reguarly beaten, they’re pitted against each other to improve the school’s academic reputation, the ones who have wealthy parents do better, suicides at the school are hushed up because everyone on staff is more worried about the school’s reputation than helping the students cope and, most surprisingly for me, as a three-year JET Programme veteran of the highly-similar-but-somewhat-less-violent Japanese high school system, it openly deals with sexual harassment of female students by male teachers. The art teacher creepily draws pictures based on the yearbook pictures of the students he finds interesting. The gym teacher likes to stroke one girl’s ear so much he does it in front of other students and even other teachers, warning her that if she complains he’ll ruin her GPA. Nope, I guess none of us in the audience missed the point that the ghosts are a metaphor for how this school system perpetuates problems in an authoritarian society! But I don’t care, because often the most effective way to deal with a problem is just to state it openly – and this is definitely one of those cases. I would much rather watch this statement than the standard-issue vacuous high school horror movie.
For another thing, the atmosphere is – just WOW. I’ve just looked it up, and it was directed by Park Ki-Hyeong. Well, three cheers for Park Ki-Hyeong. He’s talented. Yes, OK, the movie definitely drags in places. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone with a below-average attention span. But if you’re the type who can stand a little bit of “nothing much happening” if it’s in the service of atmospherics, you’ve come to the right place. And, if you’re a film geek, there’s also some pretty impressive use of the kinds of uses of camera shots you study in film school – lots to chew on on the technical front. It’s just a very well-made film. And you know, while atmosphere will get you everywhere in pretty much any genre, horror absolutely stands and falls on it. Which is to say, they thankfully got the active ingredient just right.
Here’s what they did wrong: they broke the cardinal rule of horror films by telling us from the opening scene that there was a real ghost. You just can’t do that. Horror works by creating a mounting sense of dread. It starts small, with little anomalies that are weird but probably explicable, and it slowly builds up to the point where the characters can no longer deny that there’s something supernatural going on. Once it gets to that point, it should end quickly. If you want to know how it’s done, look to 1978’s Halloween. That one’s a classic because it really isn’t until the final scene that we know for sure that there’s something supernatural at work – and even then they don’t spell it out for you. Whispering Corridors fucks this up in a hurry. The opening scene shows a teacher who is working late at the school being murdered by a ghost. Great. OK, true, we don’t see the ghost directly, but enough windows open by themselves and shit like that that there’s no doubt. Oh yeah, and the teacher who gets killed has helpfully figured it out immediately prior and manages to get a telephone call in to another teacher telling her that Ji-ju is “definitely dead, but she’s here!” So you know, a heartfelt “fuck you” to Whispering Corridors for that.
Unfortunately, there’s an even more egregious violation near the end, where they do that other thing that horror movies should never do, but that Asian horror movies frequently do, which is have blood rain down on a room as a symbol of catharsis after the characters have talked the ghost out of hurting anyone else. OK, if I could unwatch any movie sequence that I’ve seen, it would still absolutely be When Harry Met Sally from begining to end, but this is pretty close to second place. The denoument is JUST UNFORGIVEABLE. Fortunately, there’s a creepy reveal just afterward (SPOILER ALERT!) to the effect that one of the other students has taken the old ghost’s place, and so this cycle will repeat itself anyway; that makes up for A LOT. But Christ there’s a lot to make up for, and the final reveal is not really enough to get the bad images of that sentimental nonsense out of my eyeballs.
So, “conflicted.” This movie is very well done, it’s about real life, and it nails the atmospherics so well that it’s a borderline masterpiece. But it’s flawed – and flawed in ways that can’t be overlooked. So should you watch it? You’re on your own there, kid. I told you what’s right about it and what’s not. How those things rank on your subjective scale is all you. It’s an hour and 45 minutes, about 85 minutes of which is brilliant and 20 of which is garbage. Apply your weights and solve for your own enjoyment threshhold. Me, I give it thumbs up on balance.
By the way – for all you Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans out there – there’s a brief sequence where the art teacher is talking about his creepy drawings of students where they steal the excellent background music from Season 2’s Killed by Death. Just a couple of bars, but it’s unmistakeable.