Wishing Stairs Review
At a nameless, all-girls school for the Arts stands 28 steps that lead up to the dormitories. It is said that if you climb these steps while calling out each number, the Fox spirit will awaken to reveal a hidden 29th step, then by calling for the spirit's help your wish will be granted.
Yun Jin-sung (Song Ji-hyo) and her best friend, Kim So-hee (Park Han-byul) study ballet. So-hee is attractive and very talented at what she does, whereas Jin-sung is very much an average girl who shows promise but needs to develop her talent before she can challenge her friend. Eum Hae-ju (Jo An) studies sculpture, she is the least popular girl in school - constantly made fun of because of her weight she longs to be thin and pretty. Hah Yun-ji (Park Ji-yeon) is attracted to a fellow student but keeps it hidden. On her big day, So-hee fails to win a dream prize, studying ballet in Russia after broken glass had been placed into her shoe. Soon after, she dies and it's not long before various students are exhibiting strange behaviour in relation to a series of hauntings. Has So-hee returned?
Wishing Stairs is the third in a trio of films that are only related by an all-girl's school setting. First came Whispering Corridors in 1998: a ghost story that managed to deal with the education system whilst trying to add moments of tension. Next came Memento Mori; Stylistically better than its predecessor, it lacked a certain development between its characters - partly due to certain cuts made at the time in relation to lesbianism which still remains very much a taboo subject in Korea. Despite these cuts it was still poorly executed in some areas and indeed could have been bettered. Now, Yun Jae-yeon makes her debut as a feature director with Wishing Stairs, a film that sets out to tackle similar issues to those it follows.
Sadly it's just not enough. When I look at these three films I can't help but wonder how the concept might have turned out, had certain elements from all three been implemented into one feature. This is where the problem lies. After the first of the series, the follow-ups never managed to break any new ground. The room was there for improvement but each time those behind the films shied away from what it was they wanted to say.
Take Wishing Stairs, this should have been the film to make its mark but instead is a wasted opportunity. What we have is a tale of friendship, betrayal, bullying and greed. The fact that it deals with these everyday subjects should have made this a more interesting piece. Furthermore the director then takes these and places them in a modern day horror setting. It was all very well in the first film but two films later we're still seeing the same thing. Where the first film had an air of mystery as to who the ghost was, this film chooses not to deal with that aspect quite so carefully.
The film forgoes the deep explanation of the hauntings in favour of looking more into the characters but even though this is more evident it still suffers from underdevelopment. We get a small insight into the girl's relationships but not enough to make this compelling or sympathetic in any way. We know so little and are only allowed very brief moments to get into each character's psyche - like So-hee and the relationship she and her mother share, something which is only touched upon but could have revealed more about So-hee's lack of ambition toward ballet despite her talent for it. We also get a tiny look at Hae-ju. After she loses her weight she still has a tendency to blow out her cheeks, suggesting perhaps that she can't shake the person she really is on the inside.
For pacing this is very problematic, primarily because the first half of the film is about setting up the characters and supposedly getting to know them and their motivations. It would seem like any ordinary drama film on the outset. Secondly this film could have been much longer but it's here you have to decide on how much is important. Clearly, Yun Jae-yeon chose to delete a lot more character development in favour of actually getting to the spooky stuff (as proven by the deleted scenes found on the DVD). Horror isn't something that she has proven to be particularly good at - at least in any original sense. The moments we have are uninspired, or should I say too inspired by many films before it: Showers that pour blood, ghosts that levitate with wavy hair and slow motion shots with flickering lights. It's about as tension filled as an episode of EastEnders - just with better acting.
That said, it does look nice enough when it's not trying so hard. This time it seems to have more of a gothic feel and resemblance to Whispering Corridors. You would be forgiven for thinking it was set at the same school - the similarities are striking, right up to the old disused art room. I don't recall its name being mentioned and for a while I thought we were indeed in a film that cleverly harked back to the original where maybe some stunning revelation would occur. If only, I would have found that much more interesting.
It's hard to know just what the director was trying to achieve, though I'd suspect she had a real interest in knowing the characters. The areas that drop hints of a lesbian relationship are confusing because we don't know if we're seeing just a close bond between two girls who love each other as friends or if it goes much deeper. I found myself thinking the latter at times when So-hee would often say "All I need is you" but Jin-sung never reciprocates this so we can't be sure if at one time they had been closer but she'd rather forget it or if So-hee just feels immense adoration toward her.
The film is no doubt aimed at a teen audience with the issues raised but even if that's so it doesn't say anything to the viewer. Instead of being a message driven film it is just a piece that aims to scare, but really the scariest part of the feature is Jo An's chubby make-up from the start. She plays Eum Hae-ju who until she becomes thin is a chubby girl who eats a lot. At no point is she really convincing under make-up. It's far from flawless and it was perhaps a good thing that further scenes were omitted in post-production. The rest of the film offers nothing in the way of impressive effects, preferring to stick with more old fashioned techniques for its second half. The only saving grace this has in terms of its look is the lifeless school which strangely works. It's conventional and real - the whole film feels real and normal when it's not trying to scare - which again just shows this could have been a much better drama and not another quick cash in on an already unsuccessful franchise, bar the first film.
To be honest I feel that these films have run their course. Wishing Stairs performed very badly at the Seoul box office, suggesting that cinema goers are now tired of the series or just a genre that hasn't done anything to create anything memorable, aside from one or two exceptions. After seeing Memento Mori I had expressed my interest in seeing the third film after production was announced, hoping that it would do something more worthwhile. It has since failed to create an impression on me and all hopes for a fourth feature might as well be thrown out of the window, there's nothing left to do with this concept.
Cinema Service presents a fine 2-disc set. The menus are all in Korean and prove to be very difficult to navigate.
Presented at 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement this is a respectable transfer. Colours are good with excellent black levels. The image is grainy throughout which may be intentional - it doesn't distract and works well. I noticed some slight edge enhancement though which I rarely see and doesn't particularly help. English subtitles are optional and very easy to read with no stand out mistakes
Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS. These are good solid tracks that compliment the rare moments of horror.
There are a number of decent extras but be warned: They are not subtitled.
Disc one features two commentary tracks from the cast and crew and a wealth of deleted footage that seems much more character driven. Disc two features: production stills, making of, production notes, publicity (trailers etc), storyboards, interviews, CG and finally cast and crew biographies.
Ultimately the weakest in the series Wishing Stairs has little to offer except for those who are easily pleased with simple, ineffective horror. It could have been great, the makers could have taken into account all that was wrong with the previous films and corrected it here but they passed up the opportunity, making it into cinemas quickly only to leave just as fast. It's no surprise but something tells me that we haven't seen the last of these films, even though enough is enough already.