South Korean Horror: International Successes and Cultural Customs PART ONE

INTRODUCTION to South Korean Horror and its international acclamation

With the success of the thriller Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019), winner of four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, its come as no surprise that more non-Korean audiences are looking towards its industry with more anticipation than ever before. Parasite is not the first Korean film to gain traction with Western audiences though, as Bong Joon Ho’s 2006 film The Host was also well-received by English-speaking audiences, and the 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan (Sang-ho Yeon) became a hit that’s now expecting a confirmed American remake in the near future; nor can we forget to mention the eminent extreme action thriller Oldboy (2003), part of Park Chan-wook’s revenge trilogy.

This barely touches upon South Korean Cinema’s long-standing presence and enjoyment within Western cultures, but for Parasite to win an Oscar proves how Asian cinema is now even more recognised and admired in Western countries. Now, it can only get better from here as popularity rises and more audiences are introduced to non-English speaking films. South Korea has always produced perfectly good films; it was just a matter of when other people would become open to watching them.

With the popularity of Parasite and Train to Busan, it seems appropriate to explore the reasons why the South Korean horror genre is so interesting in itself. Their horror films have long reflected their culture’s values and folklore, shaped by past Confucian ideologies and prominent familial roles that, whilst changed over later years due to shifting of traditions, still hold a significant effect on classic horror roles (and whilst Confucianism can be found in many other Asian countries, I am referring to the South Korean-specific ‘version’; when talking about Korean cinema throughout this essay, I am also only referring to the South Korean industry).

For example, ghost stories were influenced by the responsibilities of motherhood and female duties, as were the patriarchal dominance in both the home and the workplace: familial roles, shaped by past years of Confucianism. It’s not just their own traditions and culture that affect their cinema, as other East Asian folklore is often used or mixed with South Korea’s own history to create their horror tales. The appearance of the fox is often found throughout Japanese and Chinese cultures, but interestingly the South Korean fox is portrayed in a contrasting light to its East Asian counterparts. The evil fox of South Korea is usually a female entity in its horror films, showing again the Confucian ideals that still left an influence on modern culture.

These types of classic Korean horror films can be found from the 1960s onwards, before essentially fizzling out around the end of the 1980s. When the horror genre of this country came back to popularity in the late 1990s with the high-school horror Whispering Corridors (Park Ki-hyeong, 1998), it was an obvious end to the first cycle of classic Korean Horror from the 1960s-80s. Whilst the first cycle reflected deeply-rooted tradition and ideals, of both gendered familial roles and animal transformations rooted in folklore, the new cycle communicated the modernisation and cultural shifts of South Korea.

Scary ‘outsider’ children explored the fear of domestic adoption, a concern developed from the Confucian importance of blood family and keeping the patriarchal line going; haunted apartments illustrated the mass building of apartment blocks that were supposed to indicate South Korea’s urban development and wealth – an indication that did not always give an accurate report of the state of some of these apartments; high school slashers encapsulated the momentous pressure put on students in the education system to succeed, sometimes acting as a relief to that pressure for their teenage audience. Even the role of the ghost can be seen to have changed between cycles, and animal tales and transformations influenced by folklore have been largely lost.

CULTURE AND TRADITION in A Tale of Two Sisters versus The Uninvited

It’s interesting to see how typical horror tropes and settings – haunting ghosts, serial killers, demonic children, claustrophobic apartments – differ between countries due to cultural variations. Whilst we all experience fear, those fears diverge for each community.

A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Ji-Woon, 2003), a successful psychological film incorporating many recognised South Korean horror tropes, was based on a folktale from the Josean Dynasty (1392-1897) in Korea. The Story of Rose and Lotus has been adapted to film many times in its country, reflecting the Confucian ideology and the specific type of female ghost seen in many South Korean films (one that manifests the deeply rooted patriarchal significance of family and the importance of woman– and mother– hood). Whilst A Tale of Two Sisters didn’t keep all the elements of The Story of Rose and Lotus, it kept enough for it to still be culturally recognisable as an encapsulation of the Korean folklore. The fact that this folktale has influenced many adaptions over hundreds of years proves just how culturally significant it is.

The Uninvited (Thomas and Charles Guard, 2009) is an American remake of A Tale of Two Sisters, and there are noticeable differences within the film when compared. The many cultural elements of Two Sisters have been lost in the remake, which has been changed to fit the expectations of typical Western horror. It is a fair claim to say that Two Sisters is overall a more successful film than The Uninvited, as well as displaying much artistic proficiency and understanding of film on the director’s part. Two Sisters was not just a hit in its own country, either, gaining immediate traction in the US and the UK and being enjoyed and revered by Western audiences as well as South Korean ones. The Uninvited, whilst a genuinely enjoyable horror film, did not expand past its own audience and was not acclaimed for its artistry.

I believe one of the reasons for Two Sisters’ international success was because of its deep cultural meanings that allowed it to engage audiences past a surface level, utilising these elements to further its horror-genre expectations, creating something more intriguing and intricate than The Uninvited. The Uninvited was essentially devoid of any cultural meaning, which, when argued alongside the claim that Two Sisters succeeded due to its own cultural input, leads to the conclusion that that was its reason for not achieving a wider audience nor a long-standing effect on the industry.

Part Two will delve into the differences between A Tale of Two Sisters and The Uninvited, comparing them on a deeper, more detailed level in order to understand whether or not their respective successes were due to these differences.

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