Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Whispering Corridors

Version I Watched: Region 3 DVD from Thailand.

History: Surprisingly little is found on the history of this film especially since it's the first in a franchise. An original story written by Jung-Ok In and Ki-hyeong Park and then was directed by Ki-hyeong Park. It was released in South Korea on May 30th 1998. Over the next few years it was slowly released in other countries but the states didn't get it until 2005 on DVD. The film was enough of a success to spawn many sequels. The fifth one, A Blood Pledge, was released as recent as 2009.
Personal History: This was my first viewing. I bought this on a whim at a video rental store (One of the few that are left).
Review: Asian horror has been taking the world by storm, or at least it was around the turn of the century. For about a decade there's been a large series of Asian horror films made apparent in the mainstream media in America whether it was straight to DVD or in the form of many a remake. Some examples of Asian horror remakes include The Ring, The Grudge, Shutter and Mirrors. Some were successful (The Ring, The Grudge), and some were not (One Missed Call currently holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes). This is a trends that's been dying out as of late minus a few straight to DVD sequels. One of the common themes was that the original was way better than the remake as is a common theme just like how the book tends to be better than the movie, but it would matter who you're talking to. Usually the way the originals are better than the remakes is because of what Asian horror does best, atmosphere. The typical theme of Asian horror is to spend a lot of time building the horrifying environment that surrounds the story. Rarely will it use cheap jump scares that tropes American horror. Instead it forced you to realize and understand the horror that is present and whatever it is truly hates you and probably doesn't even want you dead. It probably wants to torture you with fear and decide only then if you live or die. What makes them scary is this building of fear so even the exposition scenes wondering when the terror comes makes the overall experience unsettling instead of just "scary." The remakes may from time to time retain some of this but only by happenstance. It replaces a lot of it with the modern American horror tropes of jump scares and cheap thrills that makes middle school girls scream and no one else. To the best of my knowledge, Whispering Corridors has not been remade... yet... but does it still hold onto a lot of the things that makes Asian horror so great or is it one that didn't quite grab the attention that some other films have?
Well the subtlety of this said genre doesn't make an appearance right away, it actually starts off somewhat explosively. It's the beginning of a new school year and late at night the day before classes start one of the teachers is frantically looking for something that clearly terrifies her. Another teacher believes she's just cramming to be prepared for the next morning to teach so he dismisses it. Finally she gets on the phone telling someone about a student has returned to the school, but this student has been dead for years. Unable to further explain she's cut off by an attack on her life. She is strangled by a young girl then hung as if it were suicide. The whole event is somewhat graphic and doesn't quite have that subtlety one would expect from this type of horror. At least when it pulls it off it pulls it off in that specific style that Asian horror does. It's hard to explain. It's a certain type of feel and emotion that comes from these films that's so unique to their country. It isn't just that feeling I get from this one, though. I doubt this was intentional but I got a strong 80s horror feel out of it. It may have been the DVD I was watching. The version I own isn't the creme de la creme. The DVD menu looks quite cheap and the video isn't top notch. It's easy to tell it wasn't digitally remastered or at least not much. So it has a great VHS feel to the video feed I was watching. I would also like to point out this was made in the late 90s making the 80s feel give it an outdated feel. Not the intentional 70s style some grindhouse-esque films put forth. But it wasn't just the version I own that I feel caused this. It very well could be the production value of the film. Can't say for sure how strong the South Korean film industry is. Sure isn't as strong as the American industry, which of course goes without saying. It's also the music choices, the acting, it just gives off this vibe of the 80s to me. This was a trend that came and went as the film went on, especially when a primitive camera trick was used to create a cheap scare.
The rest of the story as I'm sure one would imagine takes place in the school where this murder happened. This is an all girls school and from what I read it's apparently a typical all girls school. A fact I hope they only mean in clothing and setting because the way the teachers treat their students is not so pleasant. I've heard stories and stereotypes involving countries like China, Japan, Korea, and related countries in the area having it a lot tougher in their schools but I cannot imagine this is the norm. My guess is it was exaggerated for the sake of terror. The title is very appropriate for this film. Whispering Corridors is a title I originally thought was in reference to the ghost(s) that roam the halls of the school seeing as I heard this was a ghost story. Turns out it represents the gossip and rumors that goes from girl to girl between classes, a theme that's very present in this film. One of the first big controversies in the school the other faculty members try to stop before it happens is the destruction of the reputation of the teacher who they believe committed suicide. Well dead or not the girls were still talking about this horrible teacher because she was painfully strict in the figurative and the literal sense. There is a brief flashback where all the girls in her homeroom are lined up in the hall and when one of them accidentally does adhere to her strict rules the teacher strikes the student in the hand with her ruler. So hard the strike causes her skin to split open. It was hard to predict something like this based on her introduction when she was killed. Not saying it's an unpredictable character choice especially when it comes to a school setting. Things like this were not hinted at initially and if anything it was going to be a bunch of young, high school girls who make her seem like a horrible person instead of them speaking about how horrible she treated her students. It was around this point that I started to care less about her character causing me to care less about her death. It's one of those things where unless they're killing off the characters who were more likable or that you would want to live. But their teacher was a huge, abusive pain. The same type of person the audience hopes gets killed off.
After the murder of their teacher she is replaced by an even worse teacher. He flat out tells his students to forget any sort of social life for the upcoming plan year and then decides to plan exam for the very next day. Class is dismissed in favor of them going home to study. The teacher is very physically abusive, too. At different points throughout the film he throws a chalk board eraser at a student, hits another in the head with a book, slaps one in the face, and another he basically beats the ever living piss out of. Granted each time one of the students was acting up or disobeying orders. Physical abuse I would never consider to be a justifiable solution to this sort of thing. It's the type of things a student either gets a stern talking to over or get sent to the principles office. Now going back to the time when he beat the ever living piss out of one of the girls. One of the students has a hobby on the side of painting. What she wound up painting was a portrait of the teacher who dies at the beginning of the film hanging where she was found. It's only show in brief glances so the audience never gets a full glimpse of it for a long enough time. It is quite dark and grim as any portrait of an individual who appears to have committed suicide. The teacher gets understandably upset when they come across this painting stating the VP nearly fainted when they saw it. Still, taking their frustration out on a student physically is not an okay thing, which does establish the harsh nature of the school even further. The only thing is that this makes his inevitable death all the more justified. The story was building it's way toward it.
As I keep talking about I keep thinking how this film lacked pretty heavily in the two major aspects it needed to succeed in. The story and the scares, or rather their execution of these elements. My main problem is that this film is sold as a ghost story but I don't feel the film itself brings a whole lot of attention to the supernatural aspect of it, either that or their efforts on bringing it out was poor, but probably both. Throughout the first third of the film it would jump from place to place giving more and more info causing more confusion not really knowing what's going on right away. This is partially due to the poor writing and bad editing. A subplot involved a former student who is now a teacher at the school. When she was a student her best friend committed suicide in the art room (now abandoned) and it's hinted that it's her friends ghost that haunts the halls now. Each time this subplot is visited we find out an ounce more about her friend who seems to be one of the most wonderful girls anyone could meet. Hard to imagine why she would possibly commit suicide. It just felt like not all of this was coming together properly and communicated well as I've been saying over and over. So many times I found myself confused by the story, what's going on, who is supposed to be who in the story, why said person is important, and the reveal about Miss Hur's (the woman who used to be a teacher) friend's death. It's revealed later in the story in a flashback how her friend dies and it appears to be more of an accident than a suicide. I felt like there was something I was missing when the moment came. Was it really an accident? What's just happened? How is she haunting the halls? The yearbooks that are covered in blood imply she is possessing students? But then how did she kill the teacher at the beginning of the film? My problem is that it felt like she needed to possess students to carry out her kills yet it felt like there were some kills that didn't require it especially when she appeared before the two antagonists at the end of the film as if she is really standing there. So was that just her spirit? There's just so much going on that doesn't seem to make total sense in context of the film's logic. While finishing up this entry I did some re-reading of the little material I had at hand. What I found is apparently there's a lot of social commentary with South Korean schools at the time. So I imagine there were a lot of cultural things that went into this film that I of course wouldn't understand. I still don't get how that could possibly be relevant to a ghost story... but again it's a cultural thing.
This was a movie I bought on a whim. I was fascinated by the little I've read about it (The little there is) and it wasn't priced too high. I finally got around to it, and while I didn't have very high expectations since I didn't know what to expect, I was still pretty disappointed. It just didn't live up to its cult status in my eyes. That's why they call them cult films, not everyone loves them but a select audience. The strange thing is how even though I found myself dissatisfied I am strangely fascinated by it. I definitely want to see the films that follow and what direction they take. The sequels are only related in title and theme. Characters and story continuations do not make an appearance. It's all in the ghosts and how it's always an all girl school or a cast mostly in young, teenage girls. What this film reminded me of a lot was the Tomie series, a Japanese horror series all themed around a girl named Tomie who keeps coming back to life murdering men. The similarities end at the fact that they're both Asian horror series that have a lot of entries and they're not the highest quality entertainment. Something about them is fun to watch, though. The best way I can describe it to an American audience is how it gives off the same thrill as watching the Friday the 13th films. They're mindless horror fun. I have a feeling when I get my hands on copies of the later Whispering Corridor films I would enjoy them solely for those purposes. Since I critically examined the first one and saw what it really is I can only expect that from the rest of them.

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