Monday, 6 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Whispering Corridors (1998)


Dir. Park Ki-Hyung

With horror, it is case of comparing apples to oranges in terms of preferences. I appreciate my lurid cinema, with (obviously) fake gore every ten minutes, and other times I prefer a slow, methodically paced ghost story. Part of a five film series, individual narratives but with the same theme of all-girl schools, Whispering Corridors is a very thoughtfully paced film. A teacher is found hung on campus of an all girl's school, but as the viewer sees before the characters, there is a clear supernatural prescience at the place, one which openly targets teachers who practices cruel and strict behaviour on their students. With an alumni returning back to investigate what has happened, the film is far more a drama for most of its length. An hour or more passes before the supernatural horror content of the movie reappears, the greater horror within the film more the pressure and cruelty within the school. Bullying, especially from the teachers, strict hierarchy and teaching methods, and the emotions felt by the female students as young adults and teenagers. The film gained a lot of controversy in its home country for its negative depiction of the schooling system; while I have no real knowledge of the South Korean schooling system, the fact this film even existed, becoming a box office hit, would automatically suggest there are real problems with a country's education system, from some individuals' perspectives, even if the depiction in this is not that common. Like a few Japanese genre film, schooling appears to be depicted as harsh and unnecessarily brutal at times in Asian cinema, more than in the West, where it chews up teenagers rather than lead them to becoming adults of moral rigor, although it is a universal problem that is translatable to any country. It can translate from Another Brick In The Wall being sung by Roger Waters to something much more serious like this.

Most of Whispering Corridors is dramatic than horror based. It's superior as a drama in that there isn't any pretention to it. No arch acting suggesting its importance. No overburdening music. No attempt at being realistic or, even with Whispering Corridors' real critique of education, any attempt to see itself as vital and desiring to change social norms, merely pointing it out in a narrative. None of the hysterics or self importance that causes me to run far away from any dramatic film that has had an Oscar, a Golden Globe, most film festival awards or high praise from film critics. This film is well acted, emotionally engaging and sincere with its message, whilst heavy handed occasionally, still a horror film and never becoming preachy. As a horror film it thankfully follows the motto "less is more" that films that try to be moody can fail miserably at; as some films are better following the motto "more is better", it's only a problem when a ghost story that is trying to be eerie descends into loud string sounds in the score and quick editing. This film is slow paced, building up its mood through the quiet dramatic scenes, and when there is a moment of violence, it's not too over the top but is still considerably nasty. It can be taken seriously without becoming pretentious.

The director also has a knack for using practical effects or using the tools for making films for the horror. Editing, camera angles, even the use of jump cuts in succession after each other in one moment, all of which add to an effective spookiness. The dramatic scenes of school life have a darkened mood to them too, because of the issues being tackled, the horror melding together with it seamlessly. The obvious plot point is that the supernatural entity at the school is the result of the pressures and educational bullying at the school. Again, the film does descend into moments of heavy handedness - particularly with a male teacher who is a brute, sadistic and a pervert - but it is for the most part balanced, where even a single nasty comment is enough for the worse to happen, to the regret of the person who said the comment themselves. Anything overly horror, supernatural, within this never becomes jarring, not even a final moment, the bloodiest, if not most spectacular, way to conclude a narrative, while not the exact end, made better by the fact that everything in the film is clearly done practically or in-camera. How quiet and methodically paced the film is gives Whispering Corridors it's best virtues; the fact that it is for the most part a drama, which could have the horror aspects removed from it, means that it is still engaging and never becomes a prolonged series of scenes which contribute nothing but empty self importance. That it is a horror film is good in that the material is both taken seriously and is spine tingling when need be.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Nothing particularly 'abstract'. It's moody and eerie, but it's a narrative film with a conventional structure and tone. What's interesting is how it's told the narrative.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
As a film for the site's main subject, no, but as the kind of film you'd hope to see, absolutely. What feels like one of the more commercial films covered so far in this series didn't mean that it would be typical, in its subject matter or how its told. It's amazing to say that you don't get as many films this quiet and subdued in tone. The other films I have seen, Wishing Stairs (2003), while somewhat flawed, is just as interesting and good, using the same virtues this film had to its advantage, and generally I'd like to see the two other entries in this franchise whenever possible. These films didn't get as much acclaimed  in the West either when it came to the growing interest in South Korean cinema, more interest held for the more violent and action packed entries, a shame because something like this in particular is just as interesting.

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