A look back at one of Korea’s most influential, though less well-known horror franchises…
It’s hard today for genre fans around the world to imagine a horror industry without long-haired, vengeful female ghosts, with the likes of Ringu, The Grudge and their countless clones having been terrifying viewers for over two decades now, with cinemas still seeing attempts at reviving and continuing the form. However, there’s far more to the origins of the new wave of Asian horror cinema than Hideo Nakata’s television troubling goblin. Back in 1998, at the same time that Ringu was reinventing the modern horror genre in Japan, ghoulish goings-on were also starting to stir in Korean cinemas. Although perhaps not as internationally renowned during the period, Korean ghost films had by the early years of the new century become firmly established not only in terms of being the main type of horror cinema produced in the country, but as an equal to other genres of commercial film making – a status which the horror genre has rarely achieved in other countries, a few iconic films aside.
The first and indeed the most prominent of these new Korean genre films arrived in 1998, just a couple of months after the release of Ringu, in the form of Park Ki-hyung’s Whispering Corridors, which not only achieved impressively high box office numbers, but also played an important role in the New Korean Wave of cinema. As is often the case with popular horror films, its success led not only to hordes of imitators, both at home and abroad, but its own, enduringly popular franchise, the last of which, A Blood Pledge, hit screens in 2009.
The New Korean Wave and the Rise of Genre Cinema
The global popularity of the horror genre in Korea is a relatively new phenomenon and has very much grown out of what is generally referred to as the New Korean Wave, which saw the country’s cinema become more internationally aware and transformed into a popular export around the world. This new cinematic movement was effectively launched in 1992 with Kim Ui-seok’s Marriage Story, which was the country’s first non-government funded film. Following this landmark production, the domestic film industry gradually increased in scale, reaching its first peak with the terrorism thriller Shiri in 1999, the unprecedented popularity of which came as domestic productions moved to taking up more than 50% of the local market.
The explosion of the New Korean Wave was by no means been an overnight process, and can be traced back to the country’s first proper public elections, which took place in 1987. Prior to this domestic films had been heavily regulated, with rigid guidelines regarding sex, violence and political or social commentary. The new openness in governance resulted in less strict censorship and allowed for filmmakers to more freely tackle a variety of subjects. In many cases this saw cinema being used as a means of societal criticism, with directors often casting a disparaging eye at the either the Korean or U.S. governments, both of whom were seen as being responsible for the county’s North-South divide and its rising gap between the rich and poor. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that in 1998 Whispering Corridors, one of the first significant modern horror films from Korea, would be designed not only to chill, but to make a strong anti-authoritarian statement and to make use of the new creative freedom.
Historically, whilst suspense films had found their audiences, as seen with the likes of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid, actual horror films per se had not been particularly popular in Korean cinema – although there had been some directors who dedicated themselves to the form, such as Park Yun-kyo in the 1980s. Prior to 1998, there were a number of tentative excursions into the genre proper, for example with The Fox With Nine Tails in 1994, which was similar to the Hong Kong ‘fox spirit’ films and marked the directorial debut of Park Heon-su.
The turning point for the horror genre in Korea arguably came in 1997 with The Gingko Bed, a period set horror-fantasy directed by Gang Je-gyu, who would go on to direct the hugely successful blockbusters Shiri and Tae Guk Gi. The film was very much in the mould of A Chinese Ghost Story, and was touted as the first Korean film to make use of big-budget special effects and to attempt to emulate the glossy Hollywood form. Although suffering from a lack of narrative cohesion and confused period detail, the film was visually striking, with lush production design and costumes, and was exciting enough to be a hit at the box office. Coupled with the growing popularity of Asian horror in general inspired by the international success of Ringu, it was only a matter of time before the genre took off in Korea as a genuine commercial concern.
In 1998, Whispering Corridors brought the modern Asian ghost film to Korean cinemas for the first time. Written and directed by Park Ki-hyung, the film was developed from a script which had been floating around the Korean industry for several years without being picked up, until it caught the attention of producer Lee Choon-yun, who was keen to try and replicate the success of the high school ghost story films poplar in Japan at the time. The film was shot in just 2 months and on a meagre budget of only US$50,000, and although by no means the first ghost film to feature teenage characters, it was the first to actively court a younger Korean audience through modernising the traditional ghost story form and tackling contemporary issues in a bold and daring manner. Interestingly, the film made very different use of the supernatural when compared to Ringu and its brethren, with Park employing it chiefly as a means of social commentary, giving it more in common with the cinema of the New Korean Wave.
The film begins in a fashion which would later become synonymous with the Korean genre form, with a teacher at an all-girls school making a discovery about the mysterious death of a pupil called Jin-ju some nine years ago, which may have a connection to a series of recent supernatural events. Unfortunately, she dies before passing on the secret and is found by pupils the next morning, having apparently hung herself in the schoolyard. The death of the teacher sends shockwaves through the school, with rumours claiming that she was killed by Jin-ju’s vengeful ghost. After a series of bizarre and threatening events, Eun-young (actress Lee Mi-yeon, who went on to star in the likes of Addicted and Typhoon), a new teacher who is, in fact, an ex-pupil and friend of Jin-ju, takes it upon herself to investigate, and comes up not only against a murderous spirit, but more importantly against the school authorities, a monstrous bunch of bullies, fascists and sexual predators.
Many of the fledgeling traits of the modern Asian ghost genre are visible in Whispering Corridors, which features a vengeful female spirit, a female protagonist, an investigative narrative and ambiguous use of the unknown throughout. Similarly, the very basis of the plot takes the form of an urban myth, revolving around the whispered tale of an ex-pupil’s ghost lurking in the shadows and waiting to grab unsuspecting victims. Director Park avoids the use of any computer-generated special effects or cheap shocks, and the film is the very model of slow-burn atmosphere. At the same time, he clearly shows the influence of Hollywood horror, employing what amounts to a traditional genre structure and a style inspired by classic Hitchcock. The school itself, in which most of the film’s action takes place, is reminiscent of the haunted house stalwart of Western cinema, with Park lending its dark, cavernous corridors a similar air to that of Hill House in The Haunting or the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
The film, which is viewed from a female perspective, has a strong anti-authoritarian streak, openly criticising the treatment of students, outsiders in particular, by education authorities, giving them a new cinematic voice. Through this, it touches on a number of subjects which had previously been cinematic taboos, such as lesbianism, coupled with a scathing criticism of modern Korean society in general. Indeed, although the film does feature a vengeful ghost, it is ultimately the country’s education system which comes across as the villain of the piece and from which the vulnerable characters must be protected. As a result, it provoked a great deal of controversy upon its domestic release, and a number of conservative education groups tried to legally prevent its screening, on that grounds that it misrepresented the Korean education system. Despite their efforts, it proved hugely popular, and was the second-highest-grossing domestic film of the year, marking not only the emergence of the horror genre proper in Korea, but that such films were capable of more than cheap shocks, and could be utilised for societal criticism.
The film is lesser-known than Ringu or indeed many of those which it inspired, probably due to the fact that it appears rather crude by comparison, suffering from a rather slow pace, perhaps taking the reliance on atmosphere rather than actual scares several steps too far. As a result of this, and the fact that it is inherently based around a specific element of Korean society, the film has never attracted any Hollywood interest regarding a remake – or at least, not yet.
The film’s success meant a sequel was inevitable, which duly arrived the following year with Memento Mori, directed by Kim Tae-young (Family Ties) and Min Kyu-dong (Antique), then a pair of recent Korean Film Academy graduates, after Park Ki-hyung apparently turned it down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, although the film is entirely unconnected with the original, its plot is essentially similar, following a girl called Min-ah (actress Kim Min-sun, who later starred in the likes of Portrait of a Beauty and Rainbow Eyes as well as s number of popular TV shows and dramas) who finds a diary which alludes to a lesbian relationship between two of her classmates. The lonely girl finds herself becoming obsessed with the diary, sneaking off from classes to read it, to the point where she starts to experience strange visions of its writers. Things take a turn for the creepy, when Min Sun accidentally overhears an argument between its writers, Hyo-shin (Park Ye-jin, Queen Seondeok) and Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin, Doctor Detective), only to later discover that Hyo-shin had apparently committed suicide by jumping off the school roof earlier on. Understandably unnerved, she investigates the reasons behind Hyo-shin’s tragic death, a task made all the more complicated by the fact that the dead girl’s spirit appears to return with the aim of possessing her.
Interestingly, instead of taking the usual route of most genre sequels by simply attempting to up the scare factor, Memento Mori deliberately focuses instead on its characters and emotional drama, almost to the point where it could be considered a romantic supernatural mystery rather than a horror film as such, relying upon an eerie, ambiguous atmosphere rather than actual frights. This is no bad thing, and it certainly makes the film a more interesting series entry than it might otherwise have been, thanks in part to the excellent performances from its young cast. Kim and Min handle the subject matter with surprising maturity, and the film is sad and genuinely moving in places, if a little slow-moving and too reliant upon convoluted flashbacks. Like its predecessor, the film courted controversy by engaging subjects such as lesbianism and underage pregnancy, though in an arguably more subtle and engaging manner. Through this, it oddly enough works very well as a tender coming of age story, managing to effectively capture the awkwardness of burgeoning adolescent love and self-discovery, along with the humiliations and pain it can often bring – a most unexpected achievement for a ghost film sequel, though very much in keeping with the aims and socially relevant origins of the series and its New Wave roots.
As a result, Memento Mori is arguably superior to the first Whispering Corridors, despite only nominally being a horror film. Atmospheric and almost poetic in its depiction of tormented, doomed love and the death of innocence, it still holds up today as one of the most interesting supernaturally themed Korean films.
The third in the series didn’t appear until 2003, by which time the formula was, unfortunately, starting to look a little stale, thanks to a flood of countless other modern Asian ghost films, from both Korea and Japan, as well as other countries around the world. The film marked the debut of female helmer Yoon Jae-yeon (who went on to direct the oddball horror Yoga in 2009), and attempted to update the Whispering Corridors formula somewhat by mixing its emotional and social content with something more gimmicky.
Again, taking place at an all girls’ school, the film revolves around a legend that a certain twenty-eight step staircase has a mysterious twenty-ninth step, which if found will grant wishes. Needless to say, such boons come with a terrible price, as two ballet class girls who may be more than friends called Ji-sung (Song Ji-hyo, also in New World) and So-hee (Park Han-byul, who retreamed with the director for Yoga) soon discover. Of the two, So-hee is the more talented, and although Jin-sung adores her, jealously starts to cloud her heart, and when she inevitably finds the twenty ninth step, she asks to be admitted to an upcoming competition in place of her friend. Sure enough, So-hee dies in an apparent accident, paving the way for Jin-sung’s success. Meanwhile, it turns out that another student was similarly obsessed with So-hee, and upon finding the step, asks for her return from the grave.
Although all of the trademark Whispering Corridors themes are present and correct, predominantly implied lesbianism and bullying, director Yoon doesn’t really manage to successfully combine them with the film’s supernatural aspects. This is largely due to the rather cheap use of an obvious urban legend style premise and the fact that she falls back far too much upon the clichés of the modern Asian ghost genre, even going so far as to throw in a Ringu inspired climax. It certainly doesn’t help that despite some nice creepy sets, very few of the scares actually hit home, making it questionable whether the film’s horror elements were really necessary. To be fair, the character drama and relationships between the various girls work well enough, and the film is quite sad in its own way, if manipulative. This, in turn, undermines its social commentary, and as a result, though entertaining enough for fans and above average for the form, it pales in comparison to the first two films in the series.
Thankfully, things got back on track with Voice Letter in 2005, which was released under a confusing variety of titles around the world, most of which downplayed any Whispering Corridors link. The series continued its pattern of giving first-time directors their debut, this time with Choi Ik-hwan taking the reins, an interesting choice given that he had worked as an assistant on the first film. By this stage it was obvious that something at least a little different would be required to keep a sense of relevance in an already overcrowded field, and thankfully Choi did just that, adding some interesting twists to the formula.
Of course, this didn’t mean straying from the expected girl school setting, this time following a student called Young-eon (Kim Ok-bin, who would go on to win acclaim for performances in Thirst, The Villainess and other high profile films), who starts the film by dying under strange circumstances in the music room. Surprisingly, her best friend Sun-min (popular television actress Seo Ji-hye) finds herself still able to hear her voice, and even more surprisingly isn’t particularly frightened, deciding to solve the riddle of her friend’s death. However, Young-eon’s apparent return coincides with a series of equally odd deaths at the school, leading Sun-min to suspect there may be something even more terrifying going on.
Choi proved to be a good choice of director for the series’ fourth instalment, showing enough knowledge of the genre to avoid its worst pitfalls and clichés, without straying too far from what made Whispering Corridors so successful in the first place. The gambit of having Young-eon as an ambiguous, possibly murderous ghost works very well, allowing for the usual themes of friendship and hinted at lesbianism, while at the same time adding a new dramatic tension. As with Memento Mori, the film is not a straight horror as such, being more of a supernatural detective story, with plenty of suspects and red herrings being thrown in alongside the expected high school trials. The plot is well thought out, and though not particularly original manages to keep the viewer gripped, despite a final twist which probably takes things a little too far. Even with this, Voice Letter certainly rejuvenated the series after the rather drab Wishing Stairs, and showed again that Asian ghost films could be about more than just simple scares.
A Blood Pledge
Certainly, the film was successful enough to inspire another sequel, which appeared in 2009, entitled A Blood Pledge, boasting an interesting debut director in Lee Jong-yong, who previously served his cinematic apprenticeship under Park Chan-wook, working on JSA and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – surprisingly, A Blood Pledge remains his only credit to date. Perhaps due to its appealing cast of young female stars, including Son Eun-seo (a regular in the hit series Voice), Jang Kyeong-ah (Superstar), Song Chae-yoon (Arang), Oh Yeon-seo (Just Friends), and Yoo Shin-ae (Death Bell), the film performed well at the box office, managing to stay in the top ten for over four weeks.
The plot follows a group of schoolgirls, schoolgirls, So-hee (Son Eun-seo), Eun-yeong (Song Chae-yoon), Yoo-jin (Oh Yeon-seo) and Eon-joo (Jang Kyeong-ah), who all decide to make a suicide pact together. Oddly enough, only Eon Joo dies, plunging to her death from the school’s roof. Suspecting foul play, her younger sister Jeong-eon (Yoo Shin-ae) decides to investigate, revealing the strange relationship between the girls, who soon start dying one by one in equally bizarre circumstances.
A Blood Pledge basically works as a somewhat more conventional sequel to Memento Mori, utilising a complex, and often confusing structure of flashbacks and visions that slowly reveal the truth behind its characters’ relationships. The introduction of the suicide theme is a nice addition, giving a contemporary feel that harks back to the controversial themes of the original. Although friendship still plays an important role, the dynamic between the girls and the shifting loyalties revealed in the scenes from the past are played for dramatic tension and suspense rather than anything emotional. At the same time, director Park attempts to energise the proceedings somewhat by introducing more scares and long-haired ghost action. Although this does result in a fair few familiar scenes, he generally does succeed, showing a good use of genre motifs and managing a few creative shocks. As such, the film is arguably more of a traditional modern Asian ghost film than a Whispering Corridors film as such, albeit one with a touch more depth and taut melodrama, and whilst quite different in tone to its peers, manages to be entertaining without sacrificing too much of the series’ admirable credibility. Interesting, A Blood Pledge was the first of the Whispering Corridors is the first of the franchise to be touted for a Hollywood remake, no doubt directly due to its more conventional and as such more easily translated for Western audiences – the remake has yet to materialise, which is probably for the best.
The Whispering Corridors Legacy
Whether or not the series ever makes a reappearance, the success of Whispering Corridors undoubtedly paved the way for the modern horror genre in Korea, not only due to its success at the box office, but in its pushing the barriers of what was acceptable in terms of content and subject, opening up all kinds of possibilities. The horror genre has since gone on to become a genuine commercial concern in Korea, more so than in other countries, with films being released during the summer season year after year and consistently managing to wrack up impressive figures and to attract top industry talent and high budgets.
Certainly, Whispering Corridors has inspired its fair share of school set and teen horrors in the early 2000s, such as the popular Kim Ha-neul vehicle The Ghost, The Record, Death Bell and The Cut. Similarly, other hit films of the period, such as Ahn Byung-ki’s Phone, Bunshinsaba and APT, or the Jeon Ji-hyun starring The Uninvited, were clearly influenced by the series’ stabs at social commentary and character-driven chills, either tackling controversial contemporary subjects, or focusing on themes such as isolation, bullying and the often harsh treatment of outsiders, which the Korean genre still tends to focus on even today.
In addition to this, the series was important as a proving ground for young and upcoming directors, with Park Ki-hyung having gone on to the likes of Acacia and Gangster High, Min Kyu-dong having helmed Antique and The Treacherous (as well as several instalments in the popular Horror Stories anthology franchise) and Choi Ik-kwan having worked on Life is Cool (which coincidentally starred Park Ye Jin from Memento Mori). Perhaps even more importantly, the films gave a kick start to the careers of several of the industry’s top actresses, most notably Kim Min-sun, Kim Ok-bin, Kim Kyu-ri, Seo Ji-hye, and Choi Kang-hee, and for that, even non-genre fans should be grateful.
Given the popularity of the Whispering Corridors series, even though the last instalment was released over ten years ago, it’s hard to believe that it won’t be resurrected at some point, though as recent reboots of Ringu and The Grudge have proved, there will be a definite challenge in balancing the strengths of the original films with the need to modernise to offer something new. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be achieved though, and the series grounding in social criticism and character drama gives it considerable potential and a wealth of options – time will tell, though a fresh take on the haunted halls of Korean high schools would by no means by unwelcome.