The Social Horrors of the Enduring WHISPERING CORRIDORS Series
- Writerby Pierce Conran
23-Year K-Horror Franchise Returns with 6th Entry, HUMMING
Launched in 1998, the Whispering Corridors series is one of the most enduring franchises in Korean cinema and likely most unique. The first helped establish the genre that would come to be known as K-horror, and each subsequent installment has introduced a new filmmaker to the scene and a plethora of talented young actresses who, over the years, have grown into some of the industry’s most well-known stars.
The premise of the series is a simple and effective one. Each film focuses on students in an all-girls school who will be tormented by a ghost, the grudging spirit of a former pupil. This is related directly to viewers through the Korean title of the series, ‘Yeo-go-goe-dam’, which literally means ‘Girls High School Ghost Story’. The films, which are not narratively related, are all debut works, and they have explored a range of social themes, from corporal punishment in schools to, most frequently, teenage suicide.
Despite their similar starting points, the films are hard to confuse with one another, as they stand out with very different stories and characters and especially because of their unique stylistic stamps. However, a few elements do bind them together, including their compelling female viewpoints and the frequent intersection of female camaraderies and the arts, with music, dancing and sculpture serving as an essential source of tension in most of the films.
The mastermind behind the series was producer Lee Choonyun, a figurehead in the industry and the chairman of CINE2000, which produced all the films. Lee passed away suddenly last month, on the eve of the release of the latest entry in the franchise, WHISPERING CORRIDORS 6: HUMMING, which opened in theaters on June 17.
On May 30, 1998, the Korean film industry entered a new era. Whispering Corridors, a low-budget tale of suicide and ghosts at an all-girls school, packed with scared and ghoulish imagery, became a sensation at the box office, selling over 620,000 tickets in Seoul alone, making it the second most successful film of the year.
The film welcomed a new, younger generation of viewers to theaters, who were partly seduced by the film’s thrills and chills, but more so by their ability to empathize with the lead characters. Western horror films, led by slashers in the 1980s, also fired up young audiences, but they did so largely through titillation. Korean horror films featured young school-age girls, but rather than their sexuality, viewers were presented with and drawn in by their sensibility.
Whispering Corridors also had another way of connecting with its audiences as it was a searing indictment of the brutal education system in Korea, with its long hours and demanding curriculums, and, at that time, corporal punishment inflicted by teachers on students.
All the anger that stems from this context is enough to drive the grudging spirit in the first Whispering Corridors, a student who committed suicide but whose anger has made it impossible for her to move on to the afterlife.
Park Kihyung (Acacia, 2003), after some acclaimed shorts, acquits himself well with regards to the film’s technical merits, staging frightening set pieces in a story that moves forward with clarity and at a steady clip. The film also introduced to the industry actresses such as Choi Ganghee (Petty Romance, 2010) and Yoon Jihye (Clean Up, 2018).
In December of the following year, the series returned with the astounding Memento Mori (1999), the debut of directors Min Kyudong (All About My Wife, 2012) and Kim Taeyong (Late Autumn, 2010). Though nowhere near as successful as its predecessor, the film is considered the highlight of the series and launched two of the most impressive directing careers in contemporary Korean cinema as well as major future actresses like Gong Hyojin (Crazy Romance, 2019), Kim Gyuri (Revivre, 2014) and Rie Youngzin (Between the Seasons, 2018).
Memento Mori follows a girl who finds a secret notebook belonging to two other girls who document their relationship, which clearly goes beyond friendship. Later, after one of the girls commits suicide, the mood at the school becomes more sinister and dark events begin to transpire.
Unlike the brilliant Take Care of My Cat, which would follow in 2001, Memento Mori starts off as a riveting, energetic and naturalistic tale of girls bonding before long, adds the theme of lesbianism, which was very daring those days. Only in its second half does the film tilt over into horror, but when it does, it steadily moves towards a crescendo as the apoplectic climax encompasses the whole school.
Four years after Memento Mori, the franchise returned with Wishing Stairs (2003), which added a macabre fairy tale twist to the formula at a school where a gnarled 28-step staircase is said to grant wishes to people who walk up and reach its 29th step.
Yoon Jaeyeon (Yoga, 2009) took the directors’ reigns, making her the first female filmmaker in the series, and her cast included Song Jihyo (Intruder, 2020) and Moon Junghee (Hide and Seek, 2013) in a supporting role. This stylish and twisted entry in the series focuses on the world of teenage ballet dancers in a school, particularly the two best friends who fall out when it becomes clear that one of them can’t match up to the other.
‘Be careful what you wish for’, as the adage goes, and this Suspiria-esque Korean chiller exemplifies this sentiment to a horrific effect. The ballet adds a compelling touch to the proceedings, as does the clay sculpting, which had already briefly featured in the first film.
Less successful is the characterization of an overweight outcast character, which gets more than she bargained for when she reaches the fabled 29th step.
In 2005, arts would once again be a focal point as the series welcomed The Voice, its fourth entry. The director this time was Equan Choe (Mama, 2011), who had previously served as an assistant director on Whispering Corridors.
The most ethereal and mysterious entry in the franchise, The Voice features Kim Okvin (Thirst, 2009) as a talented singer who is attacked by a ghost one day after practice, and when she wakes up the next morning, she realizes that no one can hear or see her, and she is unable to leave the school.
The only person who can hear her is her best friend, and together they try and solve the mystery of what happened to her, which may involve a former student and the school’s music teacher.
One of the highlights in the series, The Voice features an impressive cast, which also comprises Cha Yeryun (The Chosen: Forbidden Cave, 2015), Seo Jihye (Rampant, 2018), and as the teacher, Kim Seohyung (The Villainess, 2017), who would later return to the series as a new character. It is also the second Whispering Corridors film to tackle lesbian themes.
The melancholy tale explores our fear of loneliness and ultimately death with unusual sensitivity. As a horror film, it also packs a punch with some of the most chilling moments in the franchise.
A Blood Pledge
The focus of 2009’s A Blood Pledge, the fifth installment in the franchise, is teenage suicide. Suicide features in most of the previous films, but here the story revolves around a suicide pact gone wrong, as only one girl in a group of four winds up dead.
The story proceeds with the guilt of the remaining members consuming them, with a helping hand from their dearly departed friend’s restless spirit, as the story flashes across the present and past and we circle closer and closer to the truth of what happened that night on the roof of the school.
A Blood Pledge is the first and to date only film by Lee Jongyong and features an early role for future K-drama star Oh Yeonseo (Cheese in The Trap, 2018). Though the film lacks the sensitivity and stylistic verve of previous entries, it goes for broke in its depiction of a dog-eat-dog high school microcosm, as the difficult secrets the girls harbor ultimately move them to commit a terrible act.
WHISPERING CORRIDORS 6: HUMMING
Following an 11-year hiatus, the franchise finally returned with WHISPERING CORRIDORS 6: HUMMING, which served as the opening film of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) last year.
Kim Seohyung returns to the franchise as a teacher who takes up the post of vice-principal at her alma mater and steadily starts to recover the dark memories of her time there as a girl, which she had suppressed. Also returning is Lee Miyoung, who produced The Voice and here makes her debut as a filmmaker.