This is debut feature for director Axelle Carolyn. It has elements of the horror genre as well. Axelle Carolyn writes: “I love horror movies…I’d be happy to work in horror for the rest of my days.”
The film opens with an attempted suicide by a young woman, Audrey (Anna Walton). We see her cut her wrists in a bath. This is followed by the credits and then we see the same young woman driving along a country road. I thought at first that we were in a flashback. Then I saw the bandages and I realised the pre-credit sequence was a key part of what is now called the back-story.
Audrey arrives to stay at a cottage in the Brecon beacon. For a time the film becomes fairly conventional: the remote cottage, an over helpful neighbour, shots through gnarled trees, stuffed birds inside the cottage, a locked upper room. And the local doctor’s dog Anubis reacts very strongly to the cottage. But when the ghost appears the plot becomes distinctive. The centre section of the film has strong romantic flavour. And we find out more about the ghost Douglas (Tom Wisdom), and events in the past.
However, towards the end the mood reverts to the more melodramatic. I felt that the film here lost the distinctive treatment it essayed earlier. I was unsure if the filmmakers had made the opening, with a rather gothic feel in order to mislead the audience then surprise them, or to hook them into the story before it changes tone. But I don’t think the rather different style mix well. One problem I had with the film was the music score. The early signs of the ghostly presence are aural. And for a time I found it difficult to distinguish between diegetic noise and non-diegetic accompaniment.
Still, the film’s ending is nicely ambiguous and there is one suggestive shot about what possibly remains in the cottage.
This South Korean horror film was given a UK DVD release on October 14th from Matchbox. It belongs to a form of teen horror franchise known as Yeogo goedam and re-titled as Whispering Corridors in English. This is the fifth instalment. The first was in 1998 with further films in 1999, 2003, 2005 and then 2009. Each film has a separate title as well as a reference to the franchise. The only elements in the ‘package’ that remain the same are the setting in a girls high school, a group of girls as principal characters and the theme that involves emotional relationships and some form of ‘haunting’. I haven’t seen the 4th instalment but I enjoyed all the others.
A Blood Pledge refers to the suicide pledge taken by four senior girls at a Catholic high school (are they called convents in South Korea?). One of the four does leap to her death from the school roof (the preferred method of suicide in several East Asian films) but the other three appear at school the next morning. The leap is witnessed by the dead girl’s younger sister. She begins to investigate what happened and disputes begin to develop between the other three girls who made the pact. The one who died is clearly going to come back to haunt the others.
Compared to the first film this latest instalment is a very slick and ‘clean’ presentation with fluid camerawork. Much of the action takes place at night and in their school uniforms with similar hairstyles it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the five central characters. There are numerous flashbacks and dream/nightmare sequences that are not very clearly marked as such so it’s quite easy to become confused and the experience of watching can make the viewer feel delirious. As far as horror effects are concerned, there is a lot of blood – but since several scenes are located in spotlessly clean school toilets, the overall effect is quite odd. Otherwise there are the usual bumps in the dark. The most interesting aspect of the film for me is the social commentary that appears at various times. We do learn something of some of the girls’ home lives but oddly we rarely see the teachers in the school (teachers are more involved in some of the other instalments of the franchise). The most overlooked aspect of the narrative in the reviews that I have seen is the Catholicism. I thought suicide was a mortal sin, but little seems to be made of it as an event in school.
A useful interview with Lee Choon-yun the producer (and originator) of the franchise can be found here. It seems that the initial idea came from a Japanese film from 1995 and it was attractive to Lee because he saw a means of drawing on a tradition of ‘legends’ or ‘scary stories’ that circulated in Korean schools. He also tells us that he was motivated by his own views about what he describes as the “repressive Korean education system” which turns out ‘good boys and girls’, punched from cookie-cutter moulds”. He also tells us that:
. . . a girl’s high school was an attractive setting. It’s a space that stimulates male curiosity, a place that men have never been in but are fascinated by. Conversely, for women it’s an environment that they can feel nostalgic about.
The temptation in the UK would be to sexualise the girls explicitly, especially via school uniforms, but the uniforms in this film are modest, tailored and seemingly quite expensive. Somehow, the film’s director Lee Jong-yong manages to deal with familiar social issues about teen sexuality and relationships and parental bullying alongside ‘crushes’ and petty jealousies in a measured way so that he can focus on quite long scenes of angry looks, accusations and pleadings between the girls. His previous important credits include script work on Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and as Assistant director on JSA (2000) but this isn’t a Park Chan-wook style film.
The DVD is available from Amazon. I’d certainly recommend the film to anyone interested in horror, teen films or East Asian cinemas generally. It’s not necessary to have seen any of the four previous Whispering Corridors films to enjoy this one but I think you will want to see how different directors handle similar material. I think that Memento Mori (1999) remains my favourite for the moment, but I must look out for The Voice (2005). All four earlier titles are available in a Region 2 box set heavily discounted, so if you are starting without any knowledge you can now access all five quite easily.
Kim Jee-woon, director of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), has produced another stunning film. Stunning in both its direction, the acting and its content. It’s a revenge movie, a common trope it seems in Korean cinema (well Park Chan-wook excels in this), that mingles extreme imagery (females stripped, tortured and murdered) with beautiful composition and mise en scene. If that makes it seem that misogynist violence is aestheticised then that is accurate however, ultimately, the film uses the conventions of gorenography, or torture porn, to a morally devastating effect.
SPOILER ALERT: Lee Byung-hun plays a secret service agent whose fiancee is a victim of a serial killer, played by the brilliant Choi Min-sik (of Oldboy, 2003, fame) and seeks extra-judicial revenge. Despite the film’s 140 minute running length the killer is caught quickly and there’s one of those wonderful moments in a genre film where you have no idea where the film is going to go next. The killer is released only to be tracked and caught again, then released and so on… The dehumanising effect of revenge has been dealt with before but I doubt so successfully. Lee’s agent does save a number of potential victims as he chases down the killer but not before they’ve been put in peril and, no doubt, severely traumatised by the experience. The spectator’s complicity is highlighted in a Hitchockian manner: we wish to watch the film but that necessitates ‘people’ being placed in danger but, here, we cannot but wish the killer had been dealt with the moment he was caught. In other words, we are positioned not to want to watch the rest of the film.
I won’t give anything more away but the ending is truly devastating. For some reason (South) Korean cinema has slipped off my radar for a while but it’s definitely back on now. I can’t say I enjoyed watching this film, the brutality is visceral, and the violence-against-women trope disturbing, but the cumulative effect is extremely powerful in a positive sense. Apart from Kim’s dynamic direction, much is down to the performance of the protagonists: Choi’s charisma is cannily used as the killer who’s demented determination becomes almost admirable. In contrast Lee’s agent bottles up his emotions through most of the film making him appear to be the psychopath; but, then again, maybe he does become one.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is indisputably a landmark film; it made a massive impact when it was first released and is as near a unique film that you are likely to see. Its uniqueness (well there are one or two that are similar) resides in its painted Expressionist sets that remain extraordinary to look at even 100 years on. Siegfried Kracauer’s history of German cinema (published 1947), From Caligari to Hitler, suggested that we can see the antecedents of authoritarian Nazis in the character of the director of the asylum, who has a sideline in serial killing. Such teleological historical methods are both out of fashion and rubbish; Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen suffers similarly in talking about ‘mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves’ (p9).
I think it’s useful to look beyond this historical ‘baggage’ and simply consider it was a film. Of course contextualising film is of utmost importance, it’s just that Kracauer and Eisner’s views may have ‘tainted’ perceptions of Caligari.
As one of the first ‘art film’ successes, it’s ironic that if suffered from producer interference regarding the ending; something that is usually reserved for commercial cinema. But then Caligari was always a commercial enterprise it’s just that it doesn’t look like that, then or now. SPOILER ALERT: to what extent does the framing device that exonerates the director (brilliantly played by Werner Krauss) alter our understanding of the film? Does the fact that the ‘Expressionist’ sets merely indicate the ravings of a madman diminish the subversion of the suggestion that the ruler of the asylum is a lunatic? My view is that it doesn’t because too much of the film focuses upon Caligari – as manipulator of the somnambulist Cesare – as a dodgy character for that to be alleviated at the end. It could even be that Francis, the protagonist, has been entrapped in the asylum by director. Too often those in power are able to cover up their own incompetence.
Regardless of the narrative the key to the film is the marvellous mise en scene where the world is a place of artifice. The wonderful town clerk’s chair that emphasises his superiority; the bunch of houses on a hill; the triangular windows. These are what matter most in Caligari.