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Movie Review: Whispering Corridors (1998)

“School is hell.” That was the premise of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and it’s one that resonates throughout contemporary fiction, including in Korea. And given the pressures and violence that Korean students may face in school, it’s no surprise that Korean cinema set in high school is littered with stories of bullies, stress, and sometimes horrifying acts of abuse. Some films, like the recent successes Thread of Lies and Silenced, explore these issues directly. And others, like Buffy, turn to the supernatural to act as a metaphor or allegory for the harm that students receive in school. Whispering Corridors (1998) is one of the most successful examples of this kind of Korean high school horror film.

Spawning four sequels, Whispering Corridors is also one of Korea’s most successful film franchises next to Marrying the Mafia and the first installment was especially so. It was the second most successful Korean film released in 1998, after the melodrama A Promise, breaking well over half a million admissions and being one of the two Korean films to go toe-to-toe with Hollywood heavyweights.

Perhaps its success can be attributed to the resonance of its themes with the public, the vast majority having gone through the Korean school system and having been at the mercy of its abuses. It is some of those abuses that Whispering Corridors brings into relief, presenting a scorching condemnation of abuse by teachers in particular, both in abuse by corporal punishment as well as social manipulation to benefit some students over others. And though the film does suffer a little from roughness in directing and editing, the story and characters manage to mostly make up for those weaknesses.

The film opens on the legs of a student outside a girl’s high school at night. Inside, teacher Park Ki-sook (Lee Yong-nyeo) is trying to piece together a mystery before calling fellow teacher and former student Heo Eun-young (Lee Mi-yeon). Shaken, Park tells Heo that Heo’s childhood friend Jin-ju, though dead, still seems to be at the school. Then the phone line suddenly dies and very soon so does Park, at the hands of the ghostly schoolgirl.

The next day, Im Ji-oh (Kim Gyu-ri) runs into Yoon Jae-yi (Choi Kang-hee), who will be acting as class steward with her, but as they begin their duties, they encounter Park’s body, hung off of a second floor walkway of the school. In the wake of Park’s death, the disciplinarian Teacher Oh (Park Yong-su) takes over the classroom, much to the chagrin of Ji-oh. The two have a standing grudge with each other, but at least Ji-oh and Jae-yi begin developing a friendship as they learn that they both love painting.

Meanwhile, Teacher Heo, who alongside her friend Jin-ju was also once an art-loving student, begins investigating Park’s death and discovers that Ji-oh bears many similarities to her late friend Jin-ju.

The film pulls no punches its in depiction of its teachers. Although not all the teachers are depicted as abusive and manipulative, Oh in particular lays into Ji-oh with a heavy slap and then destroys her painting in a rage. Meanwhile, we also remember with the once promising student Heo how Teacher Park insisted that Heo disassociate herself from Jin-ju, who was the class outcast, lest the class turn on the brightest student too. And when Heo wouldn’t end her friendship, Park threatened to have Jin-ju expelled.

In addition to admonishing these brutal practices of individual teachers, there’s an interesting admonition of the systemic violence built into the competitive school structure. Both Park and Oh discipline their students for their grades if they can’t compete with the other classes on average, even though present-day Oh has one of the school’s top students in So-young (Park Jin-hee), whom he shows a disturbing affection for. Similarly, another student, Jung-sook (Yoon Ji-hye), who spends most of her time studying, is constantly compared to So-young and called out for not being as good, despite having the second-best grades in class.

Whispering Corridors shows through these characters that the fixation on performance and competitiveness between students, amplified by their teachers—while with the intent of pushing them all to get better grades to get into better universities—still drives social wedges between them, dehumanizing them by turning students into nothing more than numbers to be compared. Which is a pretty nuanced criticism to make for a horror film, especially since it’s pointing at the broader system of test-score-based education and not just high school.

In fact, it seems that the ghostly haunting of Jin-ju is actually secondary to the psychological horror that the girls go through in school. And that ghost story is smartly wrapped up in a mystery, the unraveling of which gives more detail into the wounds that Heo carries from her time as a student, representing the harms that other students in the system might face.

Whispering Corridors actually ties its story up pretty neatly, which I suppose is good for a film that seems more keen on its message than your typical summer scarefest.

Of course, Whispering Corridors also happens to be an early example of contemporary Korean horror and so its genre dressing is a little rough at times. It’s director Park Ki-hyung’s first feature, and that shows most on the way that the spooky scenes are shot, with some of the angle and shot choices being heavy-handed and the blocking in some of the action a little cumbersome. Some of this might also be the fault of the editing, which tends towards being a bit chunky and slow-paced in the horror scenes.

While the body count is low, the film does present the few death scenes with some gruesome detail. It might not satisfy modern-day gore-lovers, but it is pretty effective imagery and the ways the teachers are killed is imaginative, although they could be better tied to the story.

Technically, Whispering Corridors was born at the cusp of the Korean film renaissance and at a fairly lower budget as well, so it doesn’t look great, especially compared to horror films released just a few years later, with cheaper film stock and overall production values. However, the film does manage to put some thought into its foley and soundtrack. Like the direction, the sound design is a little heavy-handed at times, but the use of strong atmospheric foley does do a solid job of capturing attention and setting a mood when things get spooky.

And it’s good that the few scares in the film manage to be effective, as crude as they are, as they serve a contrast to the degree of psychological horror that the students face in the oppressive school environment. And it’s the depiction of the latter that makes Whispering Corridors a standout film, relevant even to this day as students continue to struggle through the highly competitive test-based system of education and social conflict with their peers and their teachers.

At the end of the film, Teacher Heo insists to the ghost of Jin-ju that she can do better than teachers past, but Jin-ju isn’t having it. It’s only when Ji-oh steps in alongside Heo that Jin-ju relents. It’s a surprisingly hopeful moment as it demonstrates that carrying the wounds of the past and visiting them upon the students and teachers of the present will only hurt everyone. But perhaps by joining together and creating a new kind of classroom for both student and teacher, based on camaraderie and not on competition, will schools be able to relieve themselves of some of their sins and move on.

So while Whispering Corridors might be a bit dated in terms of its production, its story remains surprisingly resonant thanks to its focus on the horrors of school more than ghostly visions. And that examination of those horrors remains applicable to today’s students and teachers. 8/10.

Note: Whispering Corridors received pretty broad distribution in North America and Europe thanks to the Asian horror craze of the early 2000s and DVDs remain in print for those looking to watch it.

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So watching this tonight!!
thanks for the review! :)

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Now I know what I'm watching tonight

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A great little flick, the kind of horror you have to pay attention to, no matter how creeped out you are.

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Wow. I love that BTVS reference. Buffy is still yet the best supernatural series that existed on tv. I am so watching this movie. Thank you

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Agreed - but I will say that "Angel" got very good as well, esp. since it ended up getting 2 of my fave Whedon-verse characters (Spike and Wesley); some seasons of "Angel" are better than BtVS and vice versa.

Some of the best/most emotional death scenes on American TV were done by Whedon (Buffy's mom, Fred and Wesley).

Somehow, this film has escaped my radar - gonna check it out.

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Great review! I'm glad you started with the very first movie, since this will encourage people to start at the beginning!!

I actually watched this entire series in reverse a couple years back, so even though this was a well told story, with just enough scares, I wasn't blown away by it or anything since all its sequels pretty much followed the exact same format - a fact I regret (I believe I gave it 3/5 stars). If I'd watched them in order, I probably would've been more impressed, and could've given it the love it deserves. But as it stands, my favorite in the series was Wishing Stairs (4.5/5 stars).

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I watched it long time back and all of it's series. I found this one not that scary but enjoyable because of the dark psychological theme. It is a bit slow for my taste though. I loved "Wishing Stairs" the most from it's series.
I have my share of childhood school horrors and verbal and physical abuse from teachers. I get these recurring dreams that I am back to my childhood boarding school... in the dark long dark school corridors or in the hostel where we are shut away for good. I feel a sense of doom and abandonment.

The series of this film and other such school horror films mimics my childhood experience with boarding schools...
I feel like sharing few personal experience here... Our boarding school was in middle of the jungle, away from the town. The hostels were long with beds aligned on both sides. The washroom was in the end of the hostel. The washroom had 4 toilets and 4 bathrooms and 2 long basins and it was separated from the main hostel by a large door. One night our hostel washroom door banged loudly waking up almost everyone. The banging went on for sometime, like someone was stuck inside. The door was locked for last couple of days for maintenance and we were using adjoining hostel's washroom. The hostel warden unlocked it to inspect, she found nobody and once she locked the door, the door started to bang loudly on it's own and move like someone was banging/ pushing it from the other side! That night we shared beds with other girls in the adjoining hostel. A 'pandit' was called the next day and 'havan puja' was conducted...
Foxes visited our hostel campus freely at night and howled under our windows...
This happened to my juniors. During evening prep period, suddenly when the electricity went off, few of the girls felt spooky and looked up and they saw a small boy peering through the ventilator, smiling down at them. Everyone in the room saw the boy and screamed and ran out. Some of the girls fell ill after that... first upon the school is all girls school and then the room would be standard 10/12 feet high... imagine a small boy climbing all the way up to peer down at the girls...

I still remember how my English teacher pulled away my (Adi-Galo traditional) garlic amulet that my mother made for my good health from my neck so hard that it left behind a red bruise. She called it jungli. During Winter when our fingers swelled, we were hit with a thin bamboo stick on our palm till our skin tore and bled... we were beaten on our knuckles with a hard stick till it turned blue... we were made to stand on the corridor railing or out under the hot sun during peak summer as punishments..... Once I caught a rat in the hostel which bit me and the Principal called me out during school assembly the next day and beat me with a thick bamboo rod in front of the entire school (oh, the shame!). My arms swelled up after that and when I was sent to get a TT injection for the rat bite, the nurse thought that my arms swelled...

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Firstly,you're Indian aren't you?
And secondly,I think I have heard of it from somewhere....
Well it's quite creepy....*shivers*

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lol def an indian boarding school - sounds creepy as heck and I'm not surprised considering where these schools are built...in jungles and far off places....*shudder*

translations:
pandit = priest
havan puja = large prayer ceremony to ward off evil
jungli = wild, unkept

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Why did the parents not intervene? To stop this kind of horrible treatment? May I ask, which part of India did you study in? I am from India too but I have never lived there!

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That school and the teachers seem a lot more scary than any supposed ghosts or other superstitions.

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I've watched this when I was young, and back then I was terrified by the spookiness. I agree, teachers are really rude in Korea, but in our country, It will be a huge crime to even spank a student.

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Great review! I like this film quite a bit, as it was one of the first Korean horror films I saw, but I had no idea it was portraying the horror of a typical school experience. I will have to go back and watch it again. Although school in the U.S. is not necessarily this bad, there is an overemphasis on standardized testing which someone really should address with a scary movie!

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omo...I wanna watch but horror films are not my thing!! -translation: I get scared with anything lol- I've watched several dramas and documentaries about how school is in SK rn and I'm saddened to see that 10+ years ago things were just as scary for students there. Aside from the classic favoritism, where I live the scary part is the lack of motivation you get from your teachers/directors and the lack of options the educational system offers you... Let's say you're good at writing and kinda ask for advice to your teacher, your Language teacher sees that and does NOTHING to motivate you... You can't really make a living as a writer where I live but knowing you can write your own book or novel is enough. I've always felt envious how people from other countries had different clubs and art-related classes because here thats almost non-existent.

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