Discovering Korean Cinema: Horror

Korean horror is a genre that has taken many cues from Japanese and American cinema. More often than not these films are pale imitations but from time to time something good comes out of the wood work. I shall be taking a look at a selection of horror films that have emerged over the years. Remember folks, I can't pick every film so bear that in mind when I say that this isn't a definitive list of must-see (or avoid) movies.

Whispering Corridors (1998)
Starring: Lee Mi-yeon, Choi Se-yeon, Park Jin-hee, Kim Gyu-ri, Jun Ji-hye, Park Young-su, Lee Yong-nyeo, Kim Yu-seok, Yu Yeon-su.
Director: Park Ki-hyung.

On the night before the new school term starts at Jookran High, Mrs. Park makes a discovery that leads to her death and the next day she is found hanging by three students. Immediately rumours start to circulate and the students begin to wonder if the events have something to due with the spirit world. When a new teacher arrives at the school she turns the incident into a personal investigation, seeking to learn the truth behind a series of mysterious killings.

Whispering Corridors was one of the first Korean horror films to really leave a mark. The 1998 feature that would spark two sequels of sorts had taken the by now familiar school setting and focused on bringing a new kind tale that would primarily involve schoolgirls and the "other side".

Not only is the film a horror but also one that tries to make statements about the Korean education system, and if you're not tired of that concept by now then you'll likely get a little more sleepy here. The film suffers from pacing difficulties and relies too much on cheap and conventional killings but overall it is a surprisingly entertaining film that lends itself more to creating a claustrophobic atmosphere than it does on lashings of gore.

Manpong Thailand R0 (4:3 NTSC, 2.0)

Full review by Kevin Gilvear:

This film is only available with English subtitles on the Thai DVD listed above. Unfortunately buying this means that you have to put up with full-screen and poor A/V. A UK DVD release is expected next year through Tartan Video.

Memento Mori (1999)
Starring: Park Ye-jin, Kim Min-sun, Kim Min-hee, Bae Jong-hak, Cha Si-eun, Lee Young-jin, Kong Hyo-jin, Jung Jin-gak.
Directors: Kim Tae-yong, Min Kyu-dong.

Min-ah stumbles across a diary one day at her school. Upon opening it she discovers that it is the property of two of her classmates who seem to be harbouring deep feelings for one another. Soon one of those classmates, Hyo-shin jumps to her death - sparking a series of events that sees Min-ah trying to escape an invisible tormentor.

1999 saw the follow up to the aforementioned film, once again pitting an all-girls' school in the centre of the story. This time the production values were raised but the story was divided which resulted in a confusing mesh of drama and horror, the latter being the least effective.

Memento Mori starts off promising but struggles in the last hour. The performances are brilliant and the cinematography lends itself well but there just aren’t enough moments to make this stand out. The film was also troubled after scenes featuring certain sexual taboos were ordered to be removed by the Korean censors. As such we are left with a film that feels incomplete and should have given a better insight into the relationship formed by our main leads.

Spectrum Korean R0 (16:9, NTSC, 5.1)

Full review by Kevin Gilvear:

The version to buy and on review above is the Spectrum R0 DVD release from South Korea, offering anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 sound. The version to avoid is the Mei-Ah R0 Hong Kong DVD release that sports a full screen pan & scan transfer and 2.0 audio.

Wishing Stairs (2003)
Starring: Song Ji-hyo, Park Han-byul, Jo Ahn, Park Ji-yeon.
Director: Yun Jae-yeon.

At an all-girls' school there is a rumour - If you count each of the 28 steps that lead up to the dormitories you will awaken the fox spirit, which in turn reveals the 29th hidden step, granting the wish of the person climbing. Two best friends who study ballet soon find themselves competing against each other for a chance to study in Russia. Greed takes over rationality and friendship and soon these best friends and their classmates are caught up in a series of hauntings that evolve from the death of So-hee.

Wishing Stairs currently looks like it is the last in the Korean, High school girls horror series - I really hope so because if this is the standard that is being set then a lot of help is needed. The problem with this series is that it never really tried to do anything innovative with each instalment.

The film is another classic example of a tired formula that relies too heavily on visuals to mask its empty script. It's a real shame that this film couldn't do anything to better it predecessors, especially being at the hands of a female director, I'd have hoped she could have pumped some new life into the dead franchise but alas it isn't so and we're left with an instantly forgettable film.

Cinema Service R3 (2-Disc SE, 16:9, DTS, NTSC)

Full Review by Kevin Gilvear:

Phone (2002)
Starring: Ha Ji-won, Kim Yoo-Mi, Choi Woo-jae, Choi Ji-yeon, Eun Seo-Woo.
Director: Ahn Byeong-ki.

Ji-won is an investigative journalist whose current article is about underage sex scandals which lead to her receiving threatening phone calls from a stranger. Her boss tells her to take some time off and stay somewhere secluded until the case blows over. She goes to stay at her best friend’s house and changes her telephone number. Not long after Ji-won settles into the new house does she begin to receive threatening e-mails and begins to look into things. Ji-won is caught up in something mysterious that may feature supernatural overtones.

The first thing that anyone wants to say about Phone is that it is blatantly ripping of Hideo Nakata's Ring. Certainly the idea has been borrowed and given its own slant but that's all the dwelling you need to do. As it stands it does a decent job even if it never gets ultra scary.

The general consensus is that Phone is simply a love or hate film. I'm somewhat in-between and think that it could have been so much better; it shows promise but in the end is a bit of a mess that stabs itself in the face with its final revelation.

Bear Ent. R3 (2-Disc SE, 16:9 NTSC, DTS) approx £13
IVL R3 (1 Disc, 16:9 NTSC, DTS) approx £7

Full review by Kevin Gilvear: Phone

Both the Korean and Hong Kong DVD releases offer superb presentations of the film, with the IVL Hong Kong release losing out on the extras but when they’re not subtitled who really cares? Unfortunately there is always a spanner in the works, and in this case some dodgy authoring on IVL’s part sees their cheaper offering trip up the majority of players by freezing three quarters of the way through. If you can put up with this possibility (you need to stop and restart/forward past the offending point that lasts for a few seconds), then it’s not a bad choice.

Memories (2002)
Starring: Kim Hye-su, Jung Bo-suk. Moon Jung-hee, Park Hee-sun, Jang Jung-won.
Director: Kim Ji-wun.

In 2002 a collaborative effort between three very well respected Asian film directors came about. The project was called Three and boasted an anthology of short horror films. Memories was Korea's offering. Directed by Kim Ji-wun, it focuses on a woman who wakes up in the middle of a road with no recollection of how she got there. Meanwhile her husband is having nightmare visions as his wife is struggling to return home with only clues in her wallet as to how to get there.

Before he started work on the much celebrated A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Ji-wun made this short film that showed off his flair for making good horror. This is a surreal effort, filled with tension that offers a few genuine scares.

Memories uses a range of film making techniques to create an immersive film that stands out from many other more recent additions to the genre. Kim Ji-wun uses sound to fuller effect and fans of the genre will get a real kick - Trust me, if you watch this with the lights down and the surround sound turned up this will deliver the goods.

Three: Panorama R0 (1 Disc, Letterbox NTSC, DD5.1)
Memories: Panorama R0 (1 Disc, Letterbox NTSC, DD5.1)
Three: CJ Entertainment R3 (2 Disc, Letterbox NTSC, DTS)

Full review by Kevin Gilvear: Three

Choosing the right DVD release for Three is far from easy. The version reviewed above is the now out of print, 3 disc LE Panorama box set release from Hong Kong. This featured one film per disc, letterbox transfers and DTS sound. In its place you can now buy a standard one-disc release from Panorama, that loses the DTS audio but retains the 5.1 Dolby option and squeezes all three films on to one disc (as they’re short the quality should not suffer). Alternatively the Korean DVD release from CJ Entertainment arrives on two-discs, features what we’re pretty sure are Letterbox transfers (listed as 4:3 on the back cover) and DTS audio for each film on disc one and a selection of bonus material (unsubtitled) on disc two.

Anamorphic options do exist, both in the PAL video standard with the Thai DVD release that features all three shorts on one disc with 5.1 audio at a typically low price for discs from this region. Alternatively you can wait for the Tartan Video UK DVD release planned for next year, which should come complete with anamorphic widescreen transfer and 5.1 audio options.

Finally, you can also purchase each film singularly from Hong Kong, with Going Home offering an exclusive director’s cut edition of the film with additional extras. The Korean film we’re interested in here is linked to above, and offers a basic film-only presentation with letterboxed video and 5.1 audio.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Starring: Im Su-Jeong, Mun Geun-yeong, Yeom Jeong-a.
Director: Kim Ji-wun.

Two sisters move to a new house with their father and stepmother. They have trouble settling in and strange things begin to happen. Yea I’ll leave it at that.

Kim Ji-wun gives us a film of dizzying proportions that will leave you to ponder for hours after it has finished. Technically it is a sight to behold and Kim gets as much use out of the set as he can, making the house a character in itself.

The film has too many points to discuss in this feature so I shall leave it there and you can check out Barry Woodcock's review at the end of this article.

Metro R3 (2-Disc SE, 16:9 NTSC, DTS)
Panorama R3 (1 Disc, 16:9 NTSC, DTS)

Full review by Barry Woodcock: A Tale of Two Sisters

Both the Korean (Metro) and Hong Kong (Panorama) discs offer superb presentations of the film, with the latter only losing out on the unsubtitled bonus features of the Korean set. The only other difference is the Interlaced Panorama transfer and Progressive Metro transfer, but if that means nothing to you then you should probably forget I even mentioned it and base your choice on price and extras.

In November 2004 Tartan will release a two-disc set to the UK DVD market, featuring many of the extras found on the Korean set fully subtitled. Until we have sampled the discs we can’t give a flat out recommendation, but this is looking like the one to own.

Korean horror has been a hit and miss affair lately. There have been other films that I've left out of this feature that I’ve not seen but haven't done much else for the genre, including Into the Mirror which Barry has reviewed for the site. Another film I have not had the opportunity to see and proves to be the most obvious omission to this feature is The Uninvited, starring the ever-popular Jeon Ji-Hyun and receiving generally decent reviews.

There have been a few stand outs over the years but overall the output has been fairly weak. In the last six years I can only find three or four films that have been entertaining and two of those have been by the same director, and he shouldn't be the only guy to carry the torch.

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