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YEO-GO GOE-DAM (GIRLS' HIGH SCHOOL GHOST STORY) (1998)
aka WHISPERING CORRIDORS

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"Jin-ju is still around…. I don’t understand it either. She’s dead for sure, isn’t she? But she’s still around! She’s been attending school."
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whispering corridorsDirector: Park Ki-hyung

Starring: Lee Mi-yeon, Park Yong-su, Kim Gyu-ree, Choi Se-yeon, Yoon Ji-hye, Park Jin-hee, Lee Yong-nyeo, Kim Yu-seok

Screenplay: Park Ki-hyung and In Jung-ok

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Synopsis: On the night before the start of the new school term, teacher Mrs Park becomes deeply disturbed by something she discovers in two of the school’s past yearbooks. Panicked, she phones her junior colleague, Hur Eun-young, and tells her that Jin-ju is still around. At that moment, the phone-line drops out. A strange force lifts Mrs Park off her feet and strangles her to death. The killer – a girl in school uniform – drags the teacher’s body through the school and out onto an elevated walkway. Meanwhile, another teacher on night duty discovers the window of classroom 3-3 open, and shuts it with some difficulty. As soon as he has gone, the window slides open again, the curtains covering it billowing in the wind; while drops of blood fall from the ceiling and splash onto a desk carved with the initials JJ. Early the next morning, Lim Ji-oh arrives at the school to find another student, the shy Ja-yee, waiting for her. Ja-yee nervously points out that the two of them are on weekly duty, then confesses that she was scared to enter the school alone. Ji-oh passes her with a contemptuous shrug but then, her better nature asserting itself, takes Ja-yee by the hand and leads her into the building. Entering classroom 3-3, the two girls are astonished to find another student, Kim Jung-sook, already at her desk. Ji-oh and Ja-yee collect their cleaning utensils and leave. Halfway downstairs, Ja-yee realises that she has forgotten a cleaning cloth and goes back for it. Ji-oh goes outside and is filling a bucket with water when something catches her eye. She stares in horror at Mrs Park’s body, which is hanging from the walkway. At that moment, Ja-yee appears. Instinctively, Ji-oh grabs her and swings her back around, covering the girl’s eyes. Above them, Jung-sook watches unseen from the classroom window. A teacher, nicknamed "Mad Dog", assembles the girls who know what has happened, and warns them not to say a word about it. Hur Eun-young enters the teachers’ room in time to hear the headmaster telling his staff not to talk about the incident, and that another teacher will be assigned for Class 3-3. Eun-young gazes at Mrs Park’s empty chair as comprehension dawns…. Later, looking up at the walkway, Eun-young reflects on the phone-call of the previous night. Toying with a pair of small silver bells, the young teacher thinks back nine years to when she was a student at the school herself, and was given the bells by her best friend – Jin-ju. In class, Park So-young whispers that perhaps Mrs Park’s death was not suicide; that Jung-sook was at school even before the duty girls, and had clashed with Mrs Park. Eun-young remembers an incident of her student days, when Mrs Park punished Jin-ju harshly for being out of uniform, then spoke insulting of her mother as a "shaman". So-young tries to convince Ji-oh – who claims to be a clairvoyant – to summon up Mrs Park’s ghost. Ji-oh agrees, but the girls are caught and severely reprimanded by "Mad Dog". Ja-yee falls foul of the school’s bad girls, and has to be rescued by Ji-oh. Eun-young discovers that two of the school’s yearbooks are missing from the library. Ja-yee finds Ji-oh in the art-room, and thanks her for helping her. Reluctantly, Ji-oh shows Ja-yee her painting – it is of Mrs Park’s dead body. After her initial shock, Ja-yee surprises Ji-oh by speaking knowledgeably of painting and praising her use of light. Ja-yee says she studied art a long time ago. Eun-young enters classroom 3-3 and finds Jung-sook sitting silently at the desk bearing the carved initials. Jung-sook leaves immediately, and Eun-young sits at the desk, remembering when she herself carved those initials in it – a gift for Jin-ju, so that the desk would be hers forever. Ji-oh enters to get something from her locker, commenting that it is now her desk. As Ji-oh leaves, Eun-young is startled to realise that she is carrying a pair of small silver bells….

Comments: Whispering Corridors is a most unusual film inasmuch as it represents the rare blending of two almost mutually exclusive genres – the horror film and (if I’ll forgive myself for using this abhorrent expression) the "chick flick". Park Ki-hyung’s directorial debut is an atmospheric film full of memorable visuals and eerie scenes; but as much as it is a ghost story, it is also a character study and a rumination upon the miseries of adolescence. When I called Whispering Corridors a (yecchh!) chick flick, I did so not because it meets the usual nauseating criteria, but because the dynamics of the story seem to have been torn whole (and possibly bleeding) from within the depths of the female psyche – something that can perhaps be credited to the film’s co-writer, In Jung-ok. Indeed, so profoundly feminine is this film’s whole consciousness, and so entirely does the story depend upon the emotions and attitudes of girls teetering between adolescence and womanhood, that I find it hard to predict how a male audience might react to it. For one thing – do boys have "best friends"? I’m not sure that they do – at least, not in the sense that girls do: those intense, passionate pairings-off whose makings and breakings do so much to shape the character in early life. An understanding of this dynamic is crucial to a full appreciation of this film, in which the plot stems from the evolution of three such relationships. Firstly, we see the blossoming of the introverted Ja-yee as her association with the headstrong, independent Ji-oh slowly develops. Conversely, we see also the anguish caused by the severance of the ties between So-young and Jung-sook, once inseparable, now driven apart by forces both social and academic. And underlying both of these situations are the sketched-in details of the friendship between the younger Eun-young and the tragic Jin-ju, the breakdown of which proved to be the first link in a chain of events leading to Jin-ju’s death – and to her haunting of the school where she died. We are made aware of Jin-ju’s ghostly presence in the film’s very first scene. However, Mrs Park’s frantic claim that she has been attending school adds another layer to the mystery – even a dash of the detective story – as the audience is encouraged to try and recognise this apparently malevolent spirit in her corporeal form. That three of the film’s main characters have names starting with "J" is an obvious indicator, although it is left for the viewer to determine whether this represents a real clue, or merely a red herring. Has Jin-ju returned as the "clairvoyant" Ji-oh, who shares the dead girl’s artistic leanings? Or as the self-effacing Ja-yee, so clearly an outsider, and who, it seems, must be invited into the school by someone else? Or as the silent, dangerously repressed Jung-sook, the events of whose life seem to be mimicking those of Jin-ju’s? Or does the danger lie somewhere else entirely? Whispering Corridors is a leisurely paced film (perhaps too much so for some horror fans), with its various characters each given their share of screen time, and the audience having ample opportunity to consider the evidence put before it. One thing made abundantly clear is that the sudden eruption of supernatural violence in the school is a response to the workings of an academic system so regimented that it threatens the literal destruction of anyone not mentally and emotionally tough enough to withstand the devastating pressures that it exerts.

For Western viewers, the most challenging aspect of watching Whispering Corridors might be trying to figure out what is "normal" about the school depicted and what isn’t. For one thing, it isn’t even easy to determine whether it is a day school, a boarding school, or a mixture of both. Some girls are seen arriving and leaving, but others seem to be there all hours of the night and day. We learn that the teachers are expected to take turns at "night duty" – patrolling the school at night like security guards – while the girls are paired up for "weekly duty" – which seems to consist of doing the school’s janitorial work. Still more startling – and distressing – is the savagery of the punishments meted out to the students over the course of the film (and all the more so since, by Western standards at least, these girls are painfully well behaved). The glint in Mrs Park’s eyes as she punishes Jin-ju will, I imagine, be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended any school (there’s always one teacher like that, isn’t there?); but that so slight an infraction of the school’s dress-code could draw such a savage reprisal may well come as a shock – certainly to American viewers. Most disturbing of all, however, is the behaviour of the teacher known as "Mad Dog". At one point, the young teacher Eun-young expresses surprise when she learns that the girls’ nickname for him isn’t "Pervert" – and with good reason. In his "good" mood, Mad Dog likes to caress the back of his students’ necks, or pinch their earlobes – often while informing them that women should be "tender and soft". (That Eun-young witnesses this yet dares not protest is another disquieting factor.) When admonishing a student, Mad Dog emphasises his words by poking the unfortunate girl in the chest – if she’s lucky, with his pointer; if not…. When he is roused to real anger by the discovery of Ji-oh’s painting of Mrs Park’s death, the outcome is bellowed obscenities – moron! bitch! shithead! – and physical violence, as Ji-oh is knocked to the ground. (I don’t want to give too much away, but you might perhaps like to know that this shining light of the teaching profession does eventually receive a most satisfying comeuppance.) Yet clearly Mad Dog’s behaviour is not an aberration, for Jung-sook, too, angers a teacher, and is struck hard enough to draw blood. What is most horrifying about all this is that none of the other girls seem shocked by it; frightened and distressed, yes, but not surprised. We are therefore led to infer that, indeed, this is actually what goes on in Korean schools. Behind all of what we witness is a relentless pressure for academic success. The girls are taught to think of one another, not merely as competitors, but as enemies. Moreover, they are further encouraged to consider themselves as enemies, if any of their natural impulses should lead them from an absolute focus on their studies. (Hence the attack upon Ji-oh for her artistic tendencies and her scholastic indifference.) The distance between school life as frequently depicted in American horror films, where no-one ever seems to do any work of any kind, and that depicted here, where academia is all-engulfing, and where anyone who "fails" is held up to ridicule and abuse (verbal and physical), is nothing short of staggering. It is interesting, therefore, that the two school systems are shown to be equally ruinous. If American films tend to concentrate upon the potentially crushing nature of the social dynamic, Whispering Corridors reminds us that a system intellectually orientated to the exclusion of all else is no less destructive.

It is necessary to comprehend the workings of the school system outlined in Whispering Corridors before it is possible to understand fully the tragedy underlying the story of Jin-ju. This was a girl who simply did not fit in – an outsider due both to her social standing (as various derogatory references to the girl’s mother inform us) and to her failure in the schoolroom. The one saving grace in Jin-ju’s life was her friendship with Eun-young – until this was taken away from her through a mixture of cruelty and cowardice. For all the intensity of the relationships depicted in this film, sexual connotations are distinctly lacking; or at most, they are present only as the most subtle of undertones. Nevertheless, there is clearly something abnormal about the attitude of the teacher Mrs Park towards her students – possibly a repressed sexuality reasserting itself in overt acts of sadism. The pleasure that Mrs Park takes in her physical punishment of Jin-ju is unmistakable, but no more so than that which the teacher evinces when she succeeds in destroying the friendship between Jin-ju and Eun-young. By harping upon Jin-ju’s "unsuitability", and more significantly, by intimating that Eun-young’s choice of friend might impact upon her school results, Mrs Park finally frightens the weak-willed girl into abandoning the unfortunate Jin-ju, and leaving her to face alone the verbal taunting of her classmates and the relentless harassment of her teachers. When Jin-ju’s lonely, bloody death follows we cannot be surprised – and nor are we when her spirit’s first retributive act results in the equally bloody death of Mrs Park. Intriguingly, we later learn that Jin-ju’s spirit has been present in the school all along – but that no-one noticed. The girl is as much an outsider in death as she was in life. It is only when Mrs Park, possibly driven by an unquiet conscience, begins to uncover the truth that Jin-ju ceases to be a mere passive presence and begins a campaign of violence, finding in death a strength and a determination that entirely eluded her during her unhappy life.

Despite the violence of Whispering Corridors’ opening scenes, this is not a film of overt horror, but rather one of gradual unease. Jin-ju’s presence is implied, rather than shown: movements in the shadows; a window that won’t stay shut; a bloodstain that no-one seems to notice but Ji-oh. One of the real successes of Whispering Corridors is that as many of its disturbing scenes take place in broad daylight as in the darkness. In addition, frightening use is made of the corridor that lies before the school’s Year 12 classrooms – a corridor so long that trying to discern just who is standing at the far end of it is unnervingly difficult…. Director Park Ki-hyung is perhaps too reliant upon some overly familiar scare tactics – dark and stormy nights; characters standing with their backs to the audience as something steals up on them; gliding camerawork to suggest a supernatural force – but nevertheless, they are well and effectively deployed. The cinematography of Suh Jung-min is a real asset, making excellent use of light and shadow and creating a tangibly disturbing atmosphere. One of the frustrating things about reviewing this film has been the difficulty in finding any information about the cast. Research has determined that the top-billed Lee Mi-yeon plays Hur Eun-young, but that is as far as I’ve got. This is aggravating to me because, as I explained at the beginning, this film is very much character based, and contains some excellent performances, especially from the two girls who play Lim Ji-oh and Kim Jung-sook; and I would like to be able to put names to their faces. Whispering Corridors is a comparatively long film, and quite a slow one. People who like their horror films fast moving and intense will probably find little to praise in it. However, viewers who are willing to give themselves up to its mood, and who can appreciate the nuanced depiction of character, may not only enjoy it, but might even find themselves moved by it – particularly by the subplot concerning Jung-sook, which is finally heartbreakingly sad. Ultimately, Whispering Corridors is a film for people who – like me – prefer being creeped out to being grossed out.

Footnote:  Special thanks to Tom Giammarco for the following cast information - "Mad Dog" was played by Park Yong-su; Kim Gyu-ree (Kim Gyu-ri) was Ji-oh; Choi Gang-hie was Ja-yee; Park Jin-hie was So-young; Yun Ji-hye was Jung-sook. It was the first film role for all four young actresses.

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