South Korean Horror: International Successes and Cultural Customs PART TWO

THE STORY OF ROSE AND LOTUS – Janghwa Hongryeon jeon

To summarise the tale of ‘Janghwa Hongryeon jeon’, a.k.a The Story of Rose and Lotus,  that A Tale of Two Sisters was based on, a mother dies when her two daughters are still children and the father, her husband, remarries. The stepmother fortunately bore sons with the father – as the father needed to carry on his patrilineage, as was expected in Korea – yet abused her step-daughters, Rose Flower (‘Janghwa’) and Red Lotus (‘Hongryeon’). She planted a dead rat in Rose’s bed, to make her family believe she’d had a miscarriage, and thus, a child out of wedlock. Rose ran to a pond, ashamed, and the stepmother made one of her sons follow her and push her in. Her younger sister, not being able to handle the abuse from her stepmother, committed suicide in the same pond. Soon, every new male mayor of the village kept mysteriously dying. Eventually, one new mayor, unafraid of the previous deaths, spoke to the ghosts of the two sisters and learnt the truth of their abuse. He sentenced the stepbrother and stepmother to death. The father was believed to not have known of any of this. Later, the father remarried, and the new wife gave birth to twin girls, named Janghwa and Hongryeon.

The Tale of Two Sisters, whilst dismissing the presence of the mayor’s and the village deaths, and changing certain elements (such as the dead rat masquerading as a miscarriage to the stepmother’s assumedly-murdered pet bird) to better fit the narrative, still keeps the actual message of the tale (of justice). Two Sisters, as with Rose and Lotus, is a reflection of Confucianism, particularly the ideas of family and patriarchy. Rose and Lotus is a tale of justice served due to the disruption of the family, an indication of the historic and societal context of the story, which has been adapted and updated for its 2003 edition. The monstrous stepmother is now a figment of the mentally fragile Su-mi, the eldest daughter who has been traumatised by the suicide of her ill mother and consequent death of younger sister Su-yeon, who too haunts Su-mi’s mind as a figure she believes to be real. The outsider, the disrupter of the family, is both the stepmother and the daughter, adding a psychological element to create a horror story out of a familiar folktale.

Su-yeon (L) and Su-mi (R).

CULTURE AND COMPARISON in the nuclear horror household

The 2009 remake The Uninvited (Thomas and Charles Guard) is generally a typical American horror. There are many similarities to its original Korean source, but with a glorification of elements that makes it lose the carefully woven narrative that Two Sisters had. It’s an enjoyable film, but one that definitely represents its country’s industry. There will be some differences, of course, in the expectations of horror expected between countries. As I previously mentioned, all countries have the same recognisable horror – such as the ghost – but the way they are presented on-screen is a different matter, as is the cultural and historical significance of said horror. The question is whether there is any found reasoning behind the overall international success and achieved artistic distinction of A Tale of Two Sisters that its American remake did not attain, and whether this reasoning is the cultural components of the Korean original versus the absence of this in the American remake.

Visual differences are stark when comparing these two films; whilst Two Sisters utilises the misé-en-scene to further its psychologically eerie atmosphere, The Uninvited relies almost solely on the visual conventions of Western horror tropes without mirroring that horror in the set any more than just a broader, more general use. The set design of Two Sisters specifically denotes the eerie tone of the film, using William Morris wallpaper that matches the rest of the family’s house, with old furniture that doesn’t equal the contemporary time-period. This contributes to the sinister and unnatural atmosphere of the film, whereas the large lakehouse in The Uninvited is not eerie or sinister, but an indication of the family’s wealth that has nothing to do with the horror that ensues; it’s more of a flashy set than an addition to the mood. The film was also made as part of an American producer’s Asian film remakes, and whilst still being a good horror film, it is devoid of a cultural meaning that its Korean counterpart holds.

Anna (L) and Alex (R) – the American ‘versions’ of Su-mi and Su-yeon, respectively.

The Uninvited portrays the mystery elements through objects that have an uncertain or unknown context, such as a watering can and dripping tap. Their relevance to the death of characters becomes known at the end of the film as the conclusion fits everything neatly together. The film is more like a game of Cluedo, figuring out which object belongs to who and why – but if you can’t figure it out then that’s fine, all will be revealed at the end. Two Sisters doesn’t utilise objects in the same way, instead focusing on creating a disjointed atmosphere and confusion in the audience in the behaviour of the characters. This certainly adds more of a psychological element, as well.

The family in The Uninvited reflect a middle-class, very wealthy nuclear American household, under threat from the outside force of the stepmother. Whilst the main character Anna’s delusions make the stepmother out to be someone who she’s not, Anna’s Korean counterpart Su-mi entirely makes up the character of the stepmother in her household. Whilst the invading force that disrupts the household in The Uninvited is still an actual physical presence in the family, with just the perception of her skewed by the main character, the real stepmother in Two Sisters is not present for the main part of the film, as Su-mi’s fragile mental state projects the evil stepmother into her household and is actually a fabrication.

When comparing these films, I reference the adult female ‘disrupter’ to be the stepmother; in both cases, she was the nurse that looked after the mother who then moved into the house to romantically be with the father after the mother’s death. Whilst not technically a ‘stepmother’ as she hasn’t married the father, the role she plays in both films is one of the stepmother, of the outside matriarchal force come to disrupt the family found in horror films.

The stepmother (L) and the father (R) in The Uninvited.

The presentation of the stepmother is different in both films, and those differences reflect the individual country’s horror tropes. It therefore reflects their respective cultures too as we know their cultures and history to be reflected within their cinema (as, for example, Two Sisters is based on an old Korean folktale). The stepmother, Eun-joo, and her odd behaviours and allusion to abuse of the two young girls is essentially ‘made up’ by Su-mi (although there are hints of it actually happening by the real stepmother in a flashback). She is then killed at the end by the ghost of either the mother or Su-yeon. The ambiguity of her death – who killed her, and was it because she didn’t save Su-yeon, or because she drove the mother to suicide by her presence and disruption? – adds to the psychological mystery of the film. The Uninvited’s stepmother is stabbed to death by Alex, the older sister of Anna and American version of Su-mi, who is soon revealed to be a figment of Anna’s imagination and thus Anna is the killer of the stepmother. This is the turning point of the film where everything is revealed and the conclusion is neatly wrapped up.

The stepmother of Two Sisters is ambiguous throughout, through her actual character and the character of Su-mi, arguably creating more of a psychological mystery throughout the film and through the finale. The stepmother of The Uninvited is, in contrast, a classic figure of American horror mystery, with many allusions to her being a killer with the multiple red herrings, but with final conclusive evidence that it was all in Anna’s head. The mystery elements such as the red herrings that Anna believes to be real are indeed done well, but the psychological element is lacking when compared to Two Sisters due to the more-linear narrative that follows the stepmother to a conclusive end. I do believe this to be an extension of the cultural representation of the films, as the Korean stepmother was an illusion bought upon by grief of the loss of the mother (an important role in the family), whereas the American stepmother was just an amalgamation of mystery tropes often found in horror films. This point is better understood when looking at the role of the mother in both films.

The stepmother (L) and the father (R) in A Tale of Two Sisters.

The ghost of the mother is also presented differently in each film. As seen before in Western horrors, the female ghost in The Uninvited is shown in the dark, making strangled noises and crawling across the floor towards the screaming Anna, lifting its terrifyingly distorted and twisted face and hands before suddenly disappearing. The ghost of the mother in Two Sisters is shown as a quieter presence, accompanied by non-diegetic music rather than a strangled moan. Her head is bent to the side, representative of her suicide by hanging, and the long black hair covering her face is a familiar trope of the Asian female ghost in horror films. She disappears after it is implied the floating ghost has begun menstruating; Su-mi then wakes up to discover her sister, who slept in the same bed as her, has started menstruating in her sleep. In sneaking a sanitary pad from her stepmother, she is caught and told that she, the stepmother, also has her period. Of course, the two females are actually Su-mi, and the image of menstruation is representative of the feminine, especially in cinema and horror as it is an image of blood, but tied to the natural motions of the womb. The ghost of the mother in Two Sisters appears as a symbol of haunting death, yes, but also as an acknowledgment of the feminine role in the film, and thus the role of the mother, motherhood, and fertility in the Korean family, particularly of the Confucian understanding of those roles which is a further representation and interpretation of the origin folktale, The Rose and The Lotus.

The ghost mother in The Uninvited.

Her role as the mother, one so important in Korean households and reflective of Confucian ideals, is disrupted. The American ghost mother is reduced to just a crawling terror, inciting fear to her living child just as she did when she herself was alive, dying in bed and barely able to speak. The role of the mother is utilised as a way of haunting the main character, diminishing it of any further or deeper meaning and portrayed through visual horror tropes and familiar characterisations in American horror. The representation of the father figure also differs in a similar way; the father in Two Sisters is almost absent, not in that he’s not present in his duties as a father but that the character is not the focus as he is male, and the focus is on the female. This is visually evident from the poster for the film itself, wherein Su-yeon, Su-mi, Eun-joo and the father are all posing in an allusion to a normal family portrait: Eun-joo and the father stand behind the two girls who are sat down, Eun-joo’s hands gripping Su-mi’s shoulders. Su-yeon holds one of her sister’s hands, the other draped over the arm of the chair. The father is not holding or touching anyone, instead just standing there. This arrangement alludes to the fact that all three women are in fact just one – Su-mi – whilst also conveying the fact that this film isn’t about the patriarch but the matriarch. The father is more detached, drawing more focus on the girls and the stepmother, unlike the father in The Uninvited who is more present as a character and more involved in the mystery. His involvement means the film acts more on that American nuclear family trope of American films, showing an adaption of the Korean family roles to American, and therefore a deviation from the Korean cultural representation.

The ghost mother in A Tale of Two Sisters.

The Uninvited uses shock value for its terror, whilst Two Sisters forges a deeper meaning of family in a cultural way to further the emotional responses of the characters and of the film, of grief and haunting loss. It utilises its roots to create a more extensive film world that connects to the audience, and in a way that is a reason for its objective merit. Two Sisters delves into its characters more to further its genre conventions, even going beyond those conventions to forge a conscientiously-created family drama; that narrative depth is due to its influence by a culturally-significant folklore, which arguably has led to its international success as a horror film as it goes beyond the conventions to create a ‘better’ horror film. This is something its American remake loses.

Part Three will connect these roles in terms of their representation of the feminine as a whole, and in turn their individual interpretations of their respective cultures. It will then conclude how that has led to A Tale of Two Sisters’ international success as a film.

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