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Wishing Stairs

All the elements are in place but there's a by-the-numbers feel to "Wishing Stairs," third in a series of South Korean scarefests set in girls' high schools. Driven by a heavy ad-pub campaign, latest entry looks to open well locally with young female auds early next month but soon run out of steam; in the West, it could get mileage in fantasy slots and on ancillary but draw less attention than recent, classier frightener "A Tale of Two Sisters."

With:
With: Song Ji-hyo, Park Han-byeol, Jo Ahn, Park Ji-yeon.

All the elements are in place but there’s a by-the-numbers feel to “Wishing Stairs,” third in a series of South Korean scarefests set in girls’ high schools. Cine2000’s unlinked franchise began gangbusters with “Whispering Corridors” (1998) and encored to more mixed results with “Memento Mori” (1999). Driven by a heavy ad-pub campaign, latest entry looks to open well locally with young female auds early next month but soon run out of steam; in the West, it could get mileage in fantasy slots and on ancillary but draw less attention than recent, classier frightener “A Tale of Two Sisters.”

At the dawn of the Korean upswing, Park Gi-yeong’s “Whispering Corridors” drew attention for its icily controlled helming and social critique of the country’s education system, as well as for its pure chills. “Memento Mori,” by first-timers Min Gyu-dong and Kim Tae-yeong, adopted a brighter, more ethereal look and stirred in loadsa Sapphic tease.

“Wishing Stairs” is an effective, but mechanical, replay of pubescent ambition, incipient lesbianism and gothic haunting. Debuting distaffer Yun Jae-yeon has gone more for the atmospheric, blue-black look of “Corridors,” and directs efficiently, but there’s a lack of psychological depth to the script that weakens the effect once the shocks start.

Story is of the simplest kind, set at a countryside high school for the arts. Leading up to the dormitory is a stone pathway with 28 steps: Superstition has it that, if you climb the steps while invoking the aid of the Fox Spirit, a 29th step will appear and your wish will come true.

Pic opens with an unidentified girl climbing the steps in the dark and making a wish, though who she is and what she wants isn’t specified. Cut to classmates Yun Jin-seong (Song Ji-hyo) and her close friend, Kim So-heui (Park Han-byeol), both of whom are studying ballet. Where So-heuiseems to have it all — looks, talent, a breezy personality and rich family — the quieter Jin-seong is only average on all counts and has to work to succeed.

Also among the students is fatty Eom Hae-ju (Jo Ahn), who’s studying sculpture and has made a clay model of the steps, and plain-Jane Han Yun-ji (Park Ji-yeon) who harbors an unrequited passion for one of her schoolmates. When someone slips some broken glass in one of So-heui’s ballet shoes to make her fail a competition, and So-heui subsequently dies in an accident, the haunting starts in earnest, with So-heui’s spirit taking on several human forms.

Though the script briefly makes clear that So-heui is driven more by the ambition of her mom, a onetime dancer, than by her own desire to be a ballerina, that’s about the limit of the character’s psychological profile. Others are equally thinly drawn, and once the haunting starts at the 40-minute mark the main challenge is keeping track of who’s spooking who.

The picture does benefit from a highly worked soundtrack with the full complement of breathy atmospherics and sudden shocks.

The series has traditionally introduced a newcomer who’s gone on to make her mark. Here, young looker Park Han-byeol, 19, is good in the early stages as spirited dilettante So-heui, but it’s 22-year-old Song, as Jin-seong, who looks like the real actress to watch.

Handle to the original title literally means “The Fox Stairs.”

Wishing Stairs

South Korea

Production: A Cinema Service release of a Plenus/Cinema Service presentation of a Cine2000 Film Prod. production, in association with SBS. (International sales: Cinema Service, Seoul.) Produced by Kim Jae-hong. Executive producer, Lee Chun-yeon. Directed by Yun Jae-yeon. Screenplay, Kim Su-ah, Lee Yong-yeon, Eun Shi-yeon, Lee So-yeong.

Crew: Camera (color), Seo Jeong-min; editors, Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-beom; music, Park Seung-weon, Jo Min-su, Song Gyeong-geun; art director, Ji Sang-hwa; costume designer, Jo Yun-mi; sound (Dolby SRD), Hong Jeong-ho, Lee Seung-cheol; visual effects supervisor, Yun Jae-hun, Jeong Chang-ik, Lee Weon-seok; special make-up, Lee Chang-man. Reviewed at Puchon Fantastic Film Festival (closing film), South Korea, July 19, 2003. Running time: 97 MIN.

With: With: Song Ji-hyo, Park Han-byeol, Jo Ahn, Park Ji-yeon.

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