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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shifting Modes of Representation in Whispering Corridors - Part I

High school girls are punished in class
Whispering Corridors (Yeogo geodam, 1998) was released during a key time in the modernization of Korean cinema. It came one year after the breakout homegrown melodramas, The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997) and The Letter (Pyeon ji, 1997) and a year before the first true Korean blockbuster, Shiri (Swiri, 1999). It was one of the early films in the new, prosperous era in Korean cinema, it was also the first horror film to leave a significant mark on the box office. While at this time horror films were similarly gaining traction in Japan, such as the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) series, their Korean counterparts were very specific in their focus, which tended to revolve around teenage girls. Surprisingly, instead of being objects that were overtly sexualized and designed to incite lust, these characters highlighted the sensibility of sonyeo (girls). Choi argues that ‘sensibility’ “provides a conceptual alternative to ‘sexuality’”. Beneath this sensibility evident in Korean horror cinema, she believes that “one must uncover a collective fantasy: a form of female bonding and sexual performance that may or may not be socially sanctioned”. Audiences are given the opportunity to share a similar sensibility beyond their typical demographic. Instead of being drawn in by exploitation and sexual fetishization, they are led to empathize with the protagonists.

Whispering Corridors… …indicts Korea’s oppressive educational system, and this South Korean modes of capitalistic socialization.”

Sonyeo working to get into college
The film is clearly a critique of the harsh Korean educational system but I think that the same things that point to this also act as metaphors for the larger issue of the whole peninsula’s shared historical trauma. The film is inherently violent, just like Korea’s bloody history, and yet most of the protagonists spend their time on screen internalizing their emotions and avoiding conflict. This contrasts strongly with male-oriented Korean high school films such as Friend (Chingoo, 2001) and Once Upon a Time in High School (Maljukgeori janhoksa, 2004), in which the protagonists constantly react physically and often incite violence. As mentioned above, the Whispering Corridors series as well as Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003) are examples of sonyeo sensibility, where the focus is on “emotional predilections and psychological behavioral dispositions and tendencies”, thus characters do not lash out physically. This style of cinema is well positioned to deal with Korea’s historical trauma. Since the nation’s grief is something that has never fully been resolved and had throughout the 1990s democratization and globalization of Korea been largely swept under the rug, it was a logical move to incorporate these buried anxieties and identity issues in characters that are typically dealing with their own grief which is quietly seething under the surface. Since the 1980s and still to this day, this position has been largely occupied by the post-traumatic males embodied by Park Joong-hun, Sol Kyung-gu and Song Kang-ho in films ranging from Chilsu and Mansu (Chilsu wa Mansu, 1988) to Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang, 1998) to The Host (Gwoemul, 2006). When Korean cinema branched out to younger audiences in the late 1990s, this was a new way to deal with the nation’s history while also becoming more contemporary and drawing in younger (as well as foreign) audiences.

A young girl look up towards a school on  a dark night
The film starts by very clearly setting out its intent, with a young girl (only visible from behind and below the knees) looking up towards a school on a dark night. This menacing shot indicates someone returning to the scene of a previous trauma. The young girl's trauma is particularly important because of her age, she died young and was thus never allowed to grow old. Her trauma, that turns out to be her suicide, is all that remains of her. Her suicide was brought about by her treatment by the school’s teachers. The first victim is this narrative is an old teacher who feels that the past is about to catch up with her. She is also unable to forget the past and knows that it has come back to haunt her. The young girl embodies Korea and its battered past, or perhaps she could also represent a young victim such as a girl slaughtered during the Gwangju Massacre. Mrs. Park is the older generation which has also been scarred by the past and cannot move forward with these memories permanently etched into their psyches.

The title Whispering Corridors refers to the gossiping girls who roam the schools halls. Perhaps it implies the growing awareness within the minjung (the masses), as they discuss current events and social injustice to the dismay of the authority that tries to eradicate any dissention by scolding the girls for chattering in class.

To be continued...

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