As internationally popular as Asian horror films have become of late, they usually aren’t designed to reach a worldwide audience. Instead, they encode their particular cultural climates. Such is the case in Whispering Corridors (Yo-go-kuei-dam), whose ghost story comments on the harsh South Korean education system.
Newly released on a DVD without extra features, Whispering Corridors takes place at a girls’ high school. It begins as schoolteacher Mrs. Park (Lee Yong-Nyeo) discovers something supernatural in several old school yearbooks, a ghost who has appeared in class photos for years. She is almost immediately killed by a dark figure wearing a student’s uniform. Showcasing dark hallways and a mysterious killer, the first few minutes of Whispering Corridors make visual and thematic allusions to the giallo thrillers directed by Dario Argento.
The students who find Mrs. Park’s body are the extroverted Lim Ji-Oh (Kim Ryu-Ree) and her new, shy friend, Yoon Jae-Yi (Choi Se-Yeon). Perhaps because they share such this violent discovery, they quickly become tight, despite their differences. This pairing of two apparently opposite personalities is paralleled in two other relationships. Park So-Young (Park Jin-Hee) is outgoing and the smartest student in the school, and used to be the best friend of the eternally depressed Kim Jung-Sook (Yoon Jy-Hye), before academic rivalries drove them apart. Equally troublesome was the relationship between the sociable Miss Hur (Lee Mi-Yeon), an alumnus who has just returned as a new schoolteacher, and Jin Ju, her classmate loathed by the rest of the class, who died on the school grounds under terrible circumstances nine years ago.
Making the most of these structural similarities, Whispering Corridors offers a study of coincidence and fate. More strikingly, all characters appear to be trapped in exactly the same situation: a bright extroverted student is influenced by her teachers and peers not to become close with a socially maladroit peer. And all are equally unable to avoid the tragic and rather predictable consequences of their actions. Miss Hur and Jin Ju stopped being friends because of disapproval from their teacher, Mrs. Park. As shown in a flashback, Mrs. Park tells Hur that she is a much better student than Jin Ju, and therefore they should not be friends. The resulting sourness between the students leads to the accidental death of Jin Ju. Similarly, Mrs. Park’s replacement, Mad Dog (Park Young-Su), sadistically enjoys weakening the fragile relationship between So-Young and Jung-Sook.
Thus the main theme of Whispering Corridors becomes evident: teachers are at once brutal and apathetic to the emotional needs of their pupils. These behaviors reach a climax when Lim Ji-Oh, an avid art student, draws a grim portrait of Mrs. Park. Never shy about inflicting corporal punishment, a rabid Mad Dog slaps her and expels her from the classroom. In the moralistic narrative of Whispering Corridors, Mad Dog pays dearly for this act of violence when he is later murdered.
The ghost here is atypical, in that it is visible in broad daylight and, posing as a new student, even sits in class and interacts with teachers and students. And quite bizarrely, at the end of the three-year academic course, it goes back to the beginning and starts all over again. If you subscribe to Freudian theory, then the ghost appears the result of an uncontrollable compulsion to repeat a childhood trauma. However, in Whispering Corridors, the repetition highlights the indifference of faculty towards the students. Indeed, the teachers never notice that a student keeps on enrolling in the same courses and does not age a single day. In this context, the image of the butchered Mad Dog, lying besides his severed ear, becomes highly symbolic of his inability to hear the needs of the students.
In the world of Whispering Corridors, an uncaring school system produces hardhearted monsters. Considering that the South Korean school system is internationally infamous for being one of the toughest in the world, it is not entirely surprising to learn that the National Teachers’ Association of South Korea attempted to have the film banned, on the grounds that it disgraced teachers and distorted the reality of South Korean education. Predictably, the association’s efforts increased the film’s notoriety and popularity; it became one of the highest grossing movies in South Korea. Now, only weeks after another high school massacre in the U.S., it’s clear that educational institutions that produce highly dysfunctional individuals are not a problem unique to South Korea.