Poor Hur Eun-young (Mi-yeon Lee) has been having difficulties ever since she started teaching at her old school. The students don’t respect her as an authority figure, the teachers still look at her as a student, and unlike all of her fellow peers she actually has some sympathies for what it is like to feel the pressures of being a young girl in South Korea. Oh, and people keep dropping like bloody flies around her.
The film begins with Mrs. Park, a teacher at the all-girl school, finding something disturbing in a yearbook. She then runs frantically through the hallways, scared out of her wits, before she calls Eun-young and mysteriously tells her that Jin-ju is still around, still attending the school. She then drops the phone and is strangled to death by an unseen person wearing the school uniform.
This mysterious killer takes Mrs. Park’s body and moves it outside to make it look like a suicide hanging. Early the next morning two completely different students, the pretty, outgoing art student Ji-oh (Gyu-ri Kim) and the less pretty, shy Jae-yi (Kang-hie Choi) arrive at school early for they have been chosen this week as class clerks, which means they have to arrive early and clean the room. Upon entering the classroom they discover Kim Jung-sook (Ji-hye Yun) is already there. The three form something of a friendship which will grow and change as the film progresses. Ji-oh, upon walking outside discovers Mrs. Park’s body hanging outside.
All of the girls are round up and made to promise they will not talk about the incident, and specifically not spread any rumors about it.
Of course the girls do talk about it and begin to speculate that it was not suicide but murder. Mrs. Park was a notoriously mean and hateful teacher who seemed to take great pleasure in punishing her students. Perhaps a particularly hated student went off the edge and murdered Park in retribution. Those rumors turn to speculation that it could have been Jung-sook as she was a particular favorite for punishment by Park, not a particularly good student, has few friends, and was at the school earlier than anyone else.
Eun-young befriends our three protagonists and begins sniffing out foul play herself, as she is continually reminded of the death of her high school friend, Jin-ju a few years earlier on those very school grounds.
The mystery deepens, the bodies pile up and the plot gets confusing.
I’ll be honest here, I had a very hard time following just exactly what the heck was happening. This is not particularly uncommon for me, especially in mysteries where knowing who did what to whom is almost always vitally important. I don’t mind it so much because I’m almost always clueless as to who-dunnit until the movie tells me during the final scene.
The thing is I’m really lousy at remembering character names, and unless the actor is someone well known to me faces and actions get mixed up in my head. A film like Whispering Corridors only compounds this confusion. The unfamiliar Korean names render them impossible for me to remember. And the unknown actors have a hard time standing out in my head (and when it is an all girl cast all with the same long, black hair clothed in the same school-girl outfits you can forget it.)
The confusion is compounded by the plot of the film which is full of flashbacks, useless clues and of red herrings. Like many mysteries, the film is designed to confuse the viewer a little so that it can surprise us in the last scene.
Visually the film takes quite a few cues from US slasher films circa the 1980s. There are lots of stop-motion cuts, weird fade-outs, and shots of the killer from angles that obscure his/her face. It has also taken a few pages out of the Dario Argento film book, especially with its use of sound for disturbing effect.
In reality it isn’t particularly scary. The deaths mostly look cheesy and belong to a different era. Though director Ki-Hyung Park tries his best to create a creepy mood, he can only manage a few good moment of eeriness with broad shots of the super long hallways linking all of the classrooms together.
It works best, not as a horror film, but as social commentary. I don’t know a thing about Korean school systems, but if they are anything like depicted in this film, then they need some serious reorganization.
All of the teachers take sadistic pleasure from abusing and harassing the students. Several times we see teachers not only verbally abusing their students but even hitting them, hard, on the face and kicking at them. One teacher in particular, nick-named Mad Dog, unleashes upon his students in nearly every scene. When he is not pitting them against each other academically (going as far as to say they are enemies in the war for the best grades) he is physically abusing them and coming onto them sexually.
What is particularly revolting about these scenes is that none of the students seem surprised by the actions, and the administration turns a blind eye. Even Eun-young who is a good hearted woman and wants to make social change in the system, jokes at the Mad Dogs advances saying his nick-name instead should be “pervert.”
Behind the death toll and mystery lies a cry for help from the students. It is an interesting juxtaposition between this and American movies that deal with the high school experience. Where American films generally deal with the effects of social standing and the fight to become “popular” Whispering Corridors shows how in a world where only good grades count the actions are also less than exemplary.
Whispering Corridors generally fails as an excellent horror/mystery film, but it does manage to raise important questions about the educational system, friendship and how we treat our fellow beings.