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Subtle and beautifully disturbing
on 15 March 2013
When it arrived, this was titled 'Ghost School Quartet' rather than 'Ghost School Horror', but it's exactly the same box set. Furthermore, losing the word 'horror' is advisable because none of these are really horror films, more subtle and evocative ghost stories - though 'The Voice' has some genuine shocking moments. The films are known as 'Whispering Corridors' and its sequels, and so very much belong together; even though the characters and the stories are completely different. the schools are so similar in structure it's possible they might have been using the same locations for some of the scenes, and the atmosphere and themes explored are all certainly along the same lines.
The main theme appears to be relational aggression or 'covert bullying'. This has been explored in American films like 'Mean Girls', but these films go further for a couple of reasons. One is something referred to by Kim Jee-Woon, the director of 'A Tale of Two Sisters', when he says in an interview about his film that Koreans tend to emphasise loyalty and togetherness more than individuality - which makes any departure from this much worse, and in each of these films deep loyalty is shown to shift quite dramatically, powerfully, even unexpectedly, to cold betrayal. Because these are ghost stories, the drama is all the more intense, something a gentler Korean film like 'Look After My Cat' cannot achieve so easily. The second advantage these films have, is that they confine nearly all the action to within the schools, thus making the claustrophobia all the worse - the classic monster-in-the-house scenario. There are no parents or reliable, compassionate adults to rescue the girls, they have to do it themselves - if they can. (I should add, another advantage here is that these are all-girls' schools, so that unlike with American films like 'Mean Girls' or 'Easy A', there are few distractions - though sexual relationships inevitably arise, and are key for some of the plot developments, it is the nature of friendship that is continually emphasised.
Despite the over-riding themes in the films, they are each very individual. (Again, the question of individuality and community.) 'Whispering Corridors', for example, is quite unlike the others in that it's low on special effects, the photography in general is not a very high standard and it's generally lacking in visual trickery. This bare-bones approach though works extremely well in telling a very complex and clever ghost story in a school that is so rigid, its brutality passed down from teachers to pupils, the familiar 'High School is Hell' metaphor is conveyed with disturbing conviction. Many of this school's horrors will find resonance with viewers, even if their school was not so overt in its brutality.
'Memento Mori' is probably the best-known film here. Immediately, after 'Whispering Corridors', it's a relief to find the students more vivacious, relaxed and individualistic. There are even shades of St Trinians here - and, yes, even laugh-out-loud moments. The photography matches the colourful student body, and is at times quite beautiful, bringing in the CGI dramatically, as needed. Whilst an effective ghost story, the tale is also an exploration of time and memory, as the title suggests.
In some ways, including style, 'Wishing Stairs' is quite similar but has some even quirkier characters and more of a childish, fairy tale-like perspective that enhances the experience. However, this is the one time a slip-up in the quality of these films is evident, 'Wishing Stairs' goes so far in trying to be original yet cannot get away from various clichés of the genre. Shades of 'Ring' and other famous examples abound. What rescues the film ultimately is that on one level it is not a ghost story at all, but more a devastating psychological portrait of ambition and loneliness. Like other great ghost stories of the past (e.g. 'Turn of the Screw') it can be interpreted in many different ways.
From 'Wishing Stairs' to 'The Voice', the focus shifts from ballet to choir, and in this fourth film we discover the crown jewel in what is already an embarrassment of riches. 'The Voice' could also be described as a hidden gem as it seems the least known of the four. As the title suggests, much of the story is auditory, in the air, sounds that one may or may not be hearing. The link with schizophrenia is clear and forms an important part of the plot. This isn't really a spoiler, as this is at the very beginning of the film, but just in case you feel it might be I'll warn you now - SPOILER ALERT - one of the most effective devices used here is in telling the story largely through the ghost's perspective. This adds to the complexity of the film and also to its terror - it is probably the only one of the four films to actually achieve this, as the others are quite mild in the fear factor (emphasising, as they do, the horrors of human nature more than anything beyond).
While all four films demand revisiting, 'The Voice' is probably the one which will continually yield more and more secrets each time. To paraphrase Cho-ah, one of the striking leads, 'This is a time of dogs and wolves. At sunset you cannot tell whether it's a dog or a wolf in the distance... It's time for the truth to be hidden. Or to be revealed.'
This review may seem over-long, but at most I've only given a glimpse of the riches offered in this quartet. Four superb films, strong in acting, concept and production, at the price you would normally pay for one meagre blockbuster - a bargain on so many levels.