Wild Women With Steak Knives: ROOMMATES Is Ready For An International Cult Following

Revisiting Eun-kyung Kim's South Korean horror.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · June 30, 2023, 6:01 PM EDT
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Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!

Don't know Eun-kyung Kim? Think again. You know Train to Busan, right? You know how the whole thing pivots around Seok-woo being dumped by his ex-wife because he was too obsessed with his job? Remember how we hear the ex-wife, Nayoung, on the phone? The voice actor who plays her is Kim Eun-kyeong. Who, as it turns out, also happens to be an amazing horror filmmaker in her own right.

As a screenwriter, she co-wrote the cult K-horror banger Death Bell in 2008 with that film's director, Hong-Seung Yoon. She also wrote the screenplay for the 2010 Korean found footage horror movie The Haunted House Project (also released as Pyega), and in 2021, she wrote and directed the horror-comedy feature Show Me the Ghost starring Han Seung-yeon from the idol group Kara. But if there's a single film that would be the advised go-to place to start with her horror work, it'd surely be the 2006 film Roommates (also released as D-Day), which – again - she both wrote and directed.

The film begins as a prim-looking woman squeezes out a smile to the camera and welcomes us to the 36-year-old Youngwha Academy, an all-girls school where young women prepare for their university entrance exams. Most of the girls have failed once already, disappointing their wealthy families who can afford to send them to this exclusive boarding school equipped with state-of-the-art facilities in what is effectively an academic boot camp.

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We experience the film through the eyes of Kim Bo-ram (Eun-seong Lee in her film debut) and soon meet the roommates mentioned in the title; there's anxious, nerdy Lee Da-young (Heo Jin-yong), sensible, ambitious Kang Eun-soo (Kim Ri-na), and obnoxious rebel girl Seo Yu-jin (Yoo Ju-hee). The latter is trouble from the very outset, rejecting the school's stringent rules and pushing back against increasingly dramatic attempts to reign her free spirit in. With the school's fascist approach to education becoming crueler and more sadistic every day, the girls must also contend with the ghosts of the past who push their way into the present, as echoes of a mysterious fire and the fate of schoolgirls just like themselves years earlier comes to light.

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Roommates was the third installment of a four-film series from Korea alongside Kim Jung-min's Dark Forest, Kwon Ho-young's Hidden Floor, and Jung Jong-hoon's 29 February, all released in 2006. This series was produced by Ahn Byeong-ki, a K-horror giant who directed iconic Korean horror movies like Phone, Bunshinsaba (both the 2004 and 2012 versions) and Apt. With Roommates, Eun-kyung Kim crafts a gripping, dark tale of complex girlhood and power run amok, and the movie is a significant addition to the "girls boarding school" horror subgenre alongside classics like Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Mari Asato's Fatal Frame.

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If there's one film that feels like it was custom-made for a perfect double bill with Roommates, however, it's surely Danishka Esterhazy's Level 16. While very different movies made by very different filmmakers, just in terms of locations and set design alone, you'd be forgiven for thinking Level 16 and Roommates were at the very least part of the same narrative universe, despite the difference in cultural context. But more than that, both films, in their own ways, paint very powerful portraits of young women under extreme pressure in what effectively can be understood as microcosmic scenarios where the undisguised feminist agendas of each filmmaker are really allowed to come to the surface.

Women-directed horror from Korea isn't widely known, but hopefully, someone in the film industry with a passion for distributing hidden gems from this part of the world is reading this and can remedy this quick-sticks – Roommates is just waiting for an international cult following.