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Whispering Corridors
cast: Kang-hie Choi, Gyu-ri Kim, Min-jeong Kim, Roe-ha Kim, and Yu-seok Kim

director: Ki-hyung Park

106 minutes (15) 1998
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
As the wave of Japanese horror that began with Ringu breaks upon the shores of western box offices in the form of the recent spate of US remakes, a similar wave of horror films - this time stemming from South Korea - approaches our shores. Fuelled partly by the mainstream success of Japanese horror and partly by the recent emergence of Korea as a hotbed of cinematic creativity in the shape of films like Oldboy and Brotherhood, the wave's crest in undeniably Whispering Corridors.

One part eastern ghost story to two parts school drama, Whispering Corridors enjoyed phenomenal success at home due to its utterly scathing critique of South Korea's notoriously strict education system and the government's resulting attempts to ban it. The film begins with one teacher being found hanged by two girls from opposite ends of the social spectrum. The world the girls inhabit is a profoundly unpleasant one where they are regularly beaten and screamed at by teachers and pitted against each other in the relentless drive to get better and better grades. As a second teacher dies it starts to become clear that the school is haunted, but is it really haunted or is one of the girls mad? At the end of the film we find out not only why the teachers died but also who it was that killed them and it's not really who you might suspect it is.

This film has two elements that need to be considered separately, the horror part of it and the drama part of it. As a horror film, Whispering Corridors seems eager to please. By including an angry and vengeful young female ghost it taps into easily recognisable Japanese horror archetypes. It also has a number of teachers being quite gruesomely murdered, and a creepy rundown school building all containing a mystery about an unexplained death. The problem is that the film sticks to genre conventions so tightly that there's a terrible feeling of having seen it all before and as a result the film isn't even remotely scary. The director Park seems able to spin a shaggy-dog story but is incapable of marshalling any sense of dread or suspense despite nearly overdosing on incidental music. In fact, the film leaves us with the impression that the ghostly goings-on are just set dressing for the attack on the Korean school system. Ki-hyung Park is so relentless in hammering home the fact that Korean schools are terrible places that it seems a little rich to then blame it for creating the ghost as if this was some kind of Sixth Sense-style surprise ending. As a horror film Whispering Corridors is an unmitigated disaster but, as I say, the horror's only there to make the drama easier to swallow.

Sadly, Whispering Corridors' heavy handedness also undermines the dramatic quality of the film. In order for the brutality to have any real resonance and for the ghost story to work, it was vital that Park make clear the real human price paid for Korea's demanding education system. This would have required that the film show us the damage that the system does in human terms. Sadly, Park loses sight of the trees for the forest and instead focuses on showing again and again the general climate of brutality and cruelty, while his main characters drift through the film largely unharmed. As a result, while his portrayal of Korean education is shocking, it is never truly harrowing. Because it is those human consequences that drive the ghost story and the dramatic message of the film, Whispering Corridors remains unsatisfying, particularly given the ending that completely undermines the climax of the film and feels crassly tacked on in order to justify the existence of sequels.

Also worth noting are the abysmal production values. The sound frequently feels as if it was completely re-dubbed in post-production with a guy doing old-fashioned radio sound effects next to the microphone. The film also looks as if it was shot on tape which, when coupled with the realistic rather than evocative set design, make Whispering Corridors look like a Halloween episode of Grange Hill. Despite these problems, this is not a bad film. While it is never totally convincing either as a school-based drama or as a horror film, its depiction of the horrors of school is genuinely engaging. Ultimately though, it is a film that is remarkable only because its success allowed other and perhaps better films to be made.

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