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Whispering Corridors (1998)
If I had to pick a word to describe Whispering Corridors, I think I’d have to go with quixotic. In many ways, Corridors is typical of 1990s Asian horror: one dead girl, creepy chilling atmosphere, and a fairly predictable plot. Unlike American films, which are almost always plot driven, Whispering Corridors is driven by mood, so much that, at times, the story only seems to exist to get the film from one tension filmed scene to the next. Unfortunately, the screenwriting isn’t necessarily up to the task.
Whispering Corridors takes place in a Korean all-girls’ high school. It’s kind of a crappy place to be. The competition is fierce, the teachers are abusive and students are distant and passive. Oh, and its haunted by a murdering ghost named Jin-ji, a student who died in an accident about 10 years ago. Jin-ji’s then-best friend, Eun-Young, has returned to the school as a teacher to discover the truth behind the mysterious deaths. What follows is your typical haunting/mystery in which we try to figure out which of the four main girls (Ji-oh, So-young, Jae-yi, and Jung-sook) is really the ghost.
The storyline doesn’t really have anything new to bring to the table, but it’s really not uncommon when dealing with modern Asian horror. Films that follow a simple “ghost story formula” do better at the box office, and they do well because the storyline works. And, when Whispering Corridors is following that formula, it too does very well. There’s just something inherently creepy about a teenage girl ghost who kills people. Maybe it's because teenage girls are so volatile, so hard to understand – making the ghost both familiar and foreign at the same time. Whatever it is, the image of a uniformed 16-year old girl with a sharp knife is enough to give me the willies. Whispering Corridors knows a good thing when it sees one and it doesn't try and break out of the box, at least when it comes to the ghost.
In fact, it is only when the movie does poke its head out of the box that we start to experience real problems. Whispering Corridors is actually trying to do two things at once. On the one hand, we have the story of Jin-Ji, who is exacting ghostly revenge on abusive teachers and trying to relive the high school experience she never had. On the other hand, however, screenwriter Jung-Ok In is also trying to use this story as an indictment of the Korean school system, exposing the harsh pressures and abuse suffered by students. Unfortunately, Whispering Corridors fails at merging these two concepts together. In order to incorporate these two ideas, the fast-paced ghost story is interspersed with disturbing images of school violence, sexual harassment and bullying. While the message of the social commentary scenes is noble, they don’t relate to the haunting at all, and they’re too long and too numerous to just blend into the background. Further, no matter how pure the intention, scenes of girls gossiping in an abandoned building or harassing each other in the bathroom just aren't that interesting, especially when you know there’s a murdering ghost around. As a result of these combined writing interests, nearly 50% of the film seems to drag.
Obviously, the movie suffers for its story problems, but, strangely, they almost don’t matter. The atmosphere created by Park is simply astounding. The school location itself is conducive to creating an overall creepy vibe. Shot mostly indoors, Whispering Corridors takes place almost entirely inside a school house, complete with blank walls and empty desks. The building seems to consist mostly of cramped, crowded classrooms and long corridors, giving the film an overall feeling of claustrophobia. This is particularly creepy, since so many of the really good scenes take place at night, the darkness heightening that closed-in feeling. When teachers are running through the halls from Jin-Ji, it’s no surprise she’s around every corner. There is nowhere to run. The walls feel like they’re closing in, the very building trapping them inside.
Of course, the lighting helps. The nighttime scenes are dimly lit, making it difficult to see what is going on. People’s expressions are obscured and the shadows unnaturally long. By controlling and dimming the lighting, Park ensures we only see what he wants us to see, forcing us to imagine what is lurking in the darkness. Further, what light there is doesn’t appear natural, having a blue tinge that colors everything it touches. The light alone can make an entire scene appear as if it takes place in another world. And then you add in the ghost. While the hallways are dark, and the victims are shrouded in shadows, Jin-ji is always well-lit. When she appears at the end of the hallway, she is lit such the light reflects off her the white shirt of her school uniform, making her glow with a eerie white light. She’s so bright, in some scenes, she’s almost painful to look at, forcing the audience to want to look away.
Color, too, adds to the shock and suspense of Jin-Ji’s story. As mentioned, the nighttime scenes are awash in a pale blue, creating a world composed of a chilling combination of blues, grays and blacks. The day-time scenes are similarly lacking in bright colors, so much that the movie almost appears to be shot in sepia tones from time to time. However, there is one color that always stands out: red. It’s first noticed in the opening scene when Mrs. Park, the first teacher to be murdered, is writing in her grade book. She has a red pen, and the circles she draws around the red letters create such contrast, their color alone appears foreboding. And well it should, since in just a few minutes the screen will be awash with Mrs. Park’s bright blood. The color red makes another starling, non-murderous appearance in Ji-oh’s painting of Mrs. Park’s corpse. The painting is horrific, done mostly in blacks and grays, except for the blood which is a bright, undeniable red. Emphasizing this color in particular, the color of death, is Park's little hint that lets us know when something isn’t quite right.
And, to top all of this off, the camera work in Whispering Corridors is simply genius. Park employs a lot of dolly shots, quick cuts and fast, wide-swinging angles. The camera, it seems, has a mind of it’s own – a quiet, impartial yet active viewer of the scenes that play out before it. Further, it doesn’t just observe, it reacts. In the opening scene, when Mr. Oh, one of the worse teachers, is walking down the dark hallway with his flashlight, scanning the halls for any mischief, the camera rolls quietly behind him, following him and the path of his flashlight. When the light passes quickly across a particularly dark corner, revealing the ghost of Jin-Ji, it jerks back, as if it were surprised. Later in the film, when Mr. Oh is trapped in the very same hallways, being stalked by Jin-Ji, the camera swings wide from one end of the hall to the other, freezing, as if in terror, when Jin-Ji is seen to be at both ends at once. When she attacks, she closes the distance without moving -- one second she's one place, the next somewhere much nearer. As if by reflex, the camera recoils, the same way a person would if a ghost suddenly launched at their face. By making the camera sentient, Park creates an emotional bridge through which the audience can connect with the movie, making the experience intrinsically more personal.
Park’s direction is so amazing, and the atmosphere and setting so emotionally resonant, it’s very easy to forget that half the story drags along at a tedious crawl. Had the film’s climax encapsulated everything I love about Whispering Corridors's moodiness, I’d whole heartedly recommend this film to anyone and everyone who would listen. Unfortunately, in the last 10 minutes of the film, screenwriting once again rears its ugly head.
Unfortunately, at this point, it becomes impossible to accurately lodge my complaint without spoiling part of the ending. When Eun-Young figures out which girl is really Jin-Ji’s ghost, Jin-Ji returns to murder her. However, by now, Ji-oh has discovered the secret as well, and comes to stop her. Confronted by her past and current best friends, at the same time, Jin-ji breaks down, crying that she doesn’t want to kill anyone. Turns out, the only reason she keeps offing the teachers is because she’s desperate for a best friend. That’s right. Jin-ji keeps reliving high school over and over again, killing the teachers that are mean to her and her buddies, because she’s a needy, emo teenager. There’s no great mystery to her death, no hidden brutality, no boiling rage or need for vengeance. She’s just lonely. I wish I could say more, but I listened to Jin-ji’s spiel and all I could think was, “Really?” After all the build-up, and tension, and fear surrounding Jin-ji’s haunting, it’s a major letdown.
It’s impossible for me to really recommend Whispering Corridors, since the story flaws are so hard to move past, and they make watching the movie a chore at times. However, with Park's brilliant direction and creepy atmosphere, I can’t not recommend it either. The thing is, when the film is good, it’s really, really good. But when it’s not, it’s painfully dull. In the end, I suppose I’m glad I watched Whispering Corridors. However, given the chance, I wouldn’t watch it again.
This review is part of Southeast Asian Horror Week, the fourth of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.