Whispering Corridors (Yeogo goedam) (1998)
Directed by Ki-hyung Park.
‘Whispering Corridors’ should be placed in the genre of films encompassing the horrors of school, along with ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Carrie’ (1976). School corridors are rife with rear and loathing, often due to a teacher who insists on pupils treating each other as enemies and competitors rather than allies. The Korean educational system is notorious for its toughness, and this movie’s critique of bullying authoritarianism touched a nerve with Korean audiences.
One of the films that prompted the late-nineties East Asian horror boom ‘Whispering Corridors’ was a huge domestic success and spawned several imitations such as ‘Wishing Stairs’ (2003) which mixes its story of backstage rivalry at a ballet school with a legend about a spirit who grants wishes when invoked on the 29th step of a staircase, and ‘Voice’ (2005) about the ghost of a murdered singer.
Park’s ‘Whispering Corridors’ however, benefits as much from his focus on complex and psychologically plausible relationships between its troubled teens as it does on delivering its gory set pieces and shocks.
Phone (Pon) (2002)
Directed by Byeong-ki Ahn.
Having received death threats after uncovering an underage sex scandal, Seoul journalist Ji-won hides out in an empty house owned by her best friend Ho-jung and her husband Chang-hoon. She has disposed of her old phone, but now begins to receive indistinct but disturbing calls on her refurbished but as yet unregistered, mobile phone.
Her friend Ho-jung’s five-year-old daughter Yung-yu, unwittingly answers one of these calls, and begins to display oddly psychotic behaviour – flying into uncontrollable rages and accosting her father like a petulant and flirtatious woman. Ji-won discovers that her phone once belonged to a schoolgirl who committed suicide.
With a female investigative journalist as the protagonist and a plot centering on the effects of haunted technology, Ahn’s film has swift pacing and a satisfying plotline involving infidelity, obsession, family relationships, sex and murder. It also boasts good performances, particularly by the extraordinary Seo-woo Eun as the possessed five-year-old Yung-yu. ‘Phone’ was supported by the Disney subsidiary Buena Vista Korea, initiating a new alliance between eastern and western markets that has been evident ever since.
A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) (2003)
Directed by Jee-woon Kim.
From its eerie opening credits – indistinct ripples ebbing over green wallpaper – to the plot twists and revelations at its climax, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ is worthy of admission to the ranks of the best psychological horrors with greats such as ‘The Innocents’ or ‘The Others’.
The storytelling is masterful in its construction, and the family home where the claustrophobic drama is played out is deeply atmospheric, with a kind of creeping Gothicism that enables deep shadow to drain warmth and light from the interiors, unnerving us with a dense assemblage of glass, wood, carpet and dark, William Morris wallpaper.
Ji-woon Kim’s film combines fairy-tale elements (wicked stepmother, haunted closet, old dark house) with incisive psychoanalytical insight into the human tragedy of loss, guilt, loneliness and frailty.
There is no lack of well-orchestrated shocks to compound the viewer’s disorientation, but the movie also contains aesthetically pleasing visuals contrasted with an atmosphere profound foreboding, fulfilling Jee-woon Kim’s asserted ambition of making a horror movie which is ‘both beautiful and terrifying’.
Oldboy (Oldeuboi) (2003)
Directed by Chan-wook Park.
This movie probably needs the least introduction, as even movie fans who have not yet dabbled in the dark worlds of Asian horror are aware of its cult-classic status.
The great Min-sik Choi, a Korean star since the movie ‘Shiri’ in 1999, plays Dae-su, an ordinary working man who is inexplicably abducted and held prisoner for 15 years. He learns from the TV in his hotel-room prison that his wife has been murdered and he is the lead suspect.
Just as inexplicably he is suddenly released. He begins a relationship with a young sushi chef, Mi-do, and gets a call from a man claiming responsibility for his incarceration and telling him that he has five days to solve the mystery or Mi-do will also be executed.
Dae–su finds the location of his erstwhile prison and exacts violent retribution on his captors. As he begins to unravel the full extent of the conundrum he discovers the terrible reality of his predicament, and is driven to the brink of insanity and despair.
Min-sik Choi has made the leading role in ‘Oldboy’ his own (as demonstrated by the disastrous flop of the American remake starring Josh Brolin). With his shock of frizzy hair, desolate countenance and wounded gaze, Min-sik Choi was the embodiment of the existential pain at the core of Park’s tragic horror-thriller. As with all of the protagonists in Chan-wook Park’s infamous ‘Vengeance trilogy’ of films, Dae-su obsessive quest leads him further into darkness, but because of Choi’s extraordinary performance, we never lose sight of the humanity in a character so mercilessly goaded into violence.
Each of Park’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ movies is constructed in the style of a Jacobean Tragedy in which violence, madness and death consume the antagonists. ‘Oldboy’ in particular, is told with tremendous cinematic style. His flair for the grotesque is tempered by a striking sense of visual composition and design. Park’s work has heavily influenced western directors such as Quentin Tarantino, an ardent fan, but his particular touch allows for the pathos of the human condition to emerge even in its darkest moments, and we are sometimes encouraged to find ‘sympathy for the devil’.
The Host (Gwoemul) (2006)
Directed by Joon-ho Bong.
The Han River which runs through Seoul is polluted by toxic chemicals poured in on the orders of a corrupt American scientist. Several years later, a gigantic mutated monster emerges from the water and begins wreaking havoc. The US military want to quarantine the public believing there may be some kind of virus present.
Gang-Du (played by Korean star Kang-ho Song) a slovenly kiosk attendant, finds hidden resources of courage as he marshals together his odd family to the rescue of his daughter, who has been taken by the creature and stored in its lair. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations take place against US military plans to release an anti-viral chemical called ‘Agent Yellow’.
The pleasure of ‘The Host’ lies in its satisfying combination of effects-driven destruction and carnage that one might expect from a monster movie, married with a touching portrayal of a crazy and dysfunctional family rallying together in the face of adversity. This is no syrupy celebration of family values – the Park family’s constant bickering is played with a slapstick sense of humour accompanied by a storyline which highlights danger, self-sacrifice and the tragedy of loss.
Ultimately though, a monster movie stands or fails on the strength and originality of its ‘creature’ and in this aspect, Joon-ho Bong’s film does not disappoint.
Acacia (Akasia) (2003), directed by Ki-hyung Park.
The Isle (Seom) (2000), directed by Ki-duk Kim.