Wishing Stairs (2003)

“To these students, who need to decide on their futures earlier than other students their age, competition and conflict among friends are their greatest fears,” says Song Ji-Hyo of Wishing Stairs. “They seek perfect beauty and they appear quite beautiful, but there is great sorrow within that beauty. There is uneasiness in people’s desire to be accepted and loved. All people have that uneasiness but when they are put in certain situations they can fall into great tragedy.”

For the DVD of Wishing Stairs, Song narrates a kind of video diary of her experience working on the film. And yet her concentration on competitiveness among characters reveals a basic truth about Korea’s successful Girls’ High School Ghost Story films (including Whispering Corridors [1998] and Memento Mori [1999]): plot is secondary to theme.

Jin-sung (Song) and So-hie (Park Han-Byeol) are best friends and ballet dancers at a prestigious arts school. When their instructor announces an upcoming recital in Seoul, open only to one student, their friendship turns to fierce competition. Jin-sung is so desperate to be that student that she seeks help from “Fox,” a mystical being who grants wishes on the spooky staircase leading to the school’s dormitory. Legend has it that anyone who walks the 28 steps, counting as she goes, thinking hard about her wish, will encounter a 29th step — if this happens, her wish is guaranteed to come true.

Jin-sung gets her way. Not only does she enter the competition in Seoul, she wins it and feels on top of the world. But her elation doesn’t last long, as things begin to go wrong, starting just about the time So-hie nosedives out a window to her death. As it turns out, another student — Hye-ju (Jo An) — at the school has been making her own wishes down on those stairs that just happen to include So-hie. These conflicting wishes — Jin-sung’s to be better at ballet than So-hie and Hye-ju’s to bring So-hie back to life — clash, causing Jin-sung, wracked with guilt, to turn in on herself and Hye-ju to go a bit mental.

The themes here are obvious. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” story, with a less than subtle lesson about striving to achieve one’s goals (climbing those stairs). It fails, however, at tying these notions together in any comprehensible sense. Hye-ju’s rapid loss of sanity and obsession with So-hie distracts from Jin-sung and So-hie’s friendship breakdown, which is the more intriguing story. It comes down to a basic lack of focus: is the film about jealousy between best friends, about enemies, or both? Jin-sung’s eventual confession to So-hie’s ghost (“I didn’t hate you I just wanted to beat you, just once”) comes too late.

Song’s “diary” fails to explore the film’s central themes beyond mentioning them. “Within those wishing stairs, there is a hidden message that the stairs are very narrow,” she says. “Everyone wants to pass through the narrow path and those who fail fall into sorrow and depression, but if you make a wish and use the magic to pass through it, tragedy and terror can follow because of your wish.” It could be a matter of bad translation (the DVD’s extras are all subtitled), but again, this explains little about specific character motivations.

Director Yoon Jae-Yeon also prefers to explore theme rather than character when discussing the film: “Wishing Stairs centers around the students’ competitive nature and their desire for acknowledgement.” To her credit, Yoon’s direction is sufficiently creepy and her use of stark blues, reds, and greens against a predominantly black canvas creates an eerie look. Like so many of Tartan’s Asia Extreme releases, this is a gorgeous piece of work with superior production values, a mystical, haunting score, and superb young actors.

Song and her castmates are wonderful to listen to as they recount their experiences on set in the documentary and during “Director’s Notebook and Sketches,” and a cast and crew interviews segment. The actors are at once humble and enthusiastic. “I don’t know if I did my best, but I worked very hard in this role,” Park Ji-Yun says in her interview. She ends the segment in tears, recalling a connection she made with Yoon. “People shouldn’t see me like this,” she says as she attempts to retain her composure. Such intimacy demonstrates one of the pleasures of Tartan’s Asia Extreme discs. Not only are they making Asian cinema available to a broader audience. They’re also revealing the passion behind the scenes.