South Korean Horror: International Successes and Cultural Customs PART THREE

THE FEMININE and the female function

The female representation in The Uninvited is totally different to A Tale of Two Sisters in that the characters are motivated by sex, whereas Two Sisters doesn’t rely on that specific Western horror trope to direct the stepmother and two daughters. The opening of The Uninvited shows the teenage Anna attending a party in the woods, surrounded by drunk teenagers (including her sister). A boy, Matt, makes advances on Anna, but before they go all the way she runs off back to her house. Flash-forward and Anna is at the psychiatric hospital, the previous party scene just a combination of a fuzzy memory and a nightmare. This isn’t the only instance of Anna ‘denying’ sex, and she later kills Matt when they were supposed to meet up in secret. It is then uncovered that her mother and sister died after Anna accidentally killed them, when she was really targeting her stepmother after witnessing her having sex with her father. This mirrors traditional elements of Western horror films, alluding to the ‘final girl’ trope wherein the only survivor is often the virginal/pure girl who doesn’t get distracted by sex, which is ultimately what gets her movie counterparts murdered or killed.

When the two sisters go snooping for clues in the stepmother’s bedroom, they route through a drawer of lacy lingerie and find a vibrator. They remove the batteries, to halt ‘her fun’, again implying sex as the negative. Female characters in The Uninvited are ultimately shown as wilder beings; the stepmother indulges in raunchy sex with the father; she swaps the car to something faster and ‘more fun’; Alex is surrounded by boys at the initial party; Anna has a crush on a boy who tries to engage her in sex. This fits in with Western films as a whole, utilising sexuality as a mode of expression and significance to the narrative and its characters. This is entirely different to how ‘sexuality’ and the feminine is represented in Korean films and is evident in Two Sisters, particularly in comparison to its American counterpart.

This is an important aspect to recognise as it proves a significant difference between the two films, and in turn the two cultures. The conflict in The Uninvited is sex; it’s what drives Anna to murder her stepmother (the sexual intruder that disrupts her family) and Matt (the boy who wants to have sex with her). As the main character, we align with Anna and therefore the female as she interacts with the different feminine roles in her family – the mother, both real and intruder, and her sister. Essentially, the conflict of sex is linked with the feminine in the family. In Two Sisters, however, the conflict is not sex but the intrusion of a female role. This is why there is a focus on the menstruation, a function of the female body; it’s the link between all the women and girls, and not sex. Rather than having the sister and mother as functions of horror used to haunt, the sister and the mother are representations of grief at having the role of the mother disrupted in the household.

The disruption initiates the grief because of its importance to Korean culture. Linking back to Confucian ideals and its shaping of the role of motherhood and its capacity to serve the household, and looking at the points made in the previous section of such roles, the reasoning behind the differences between the two films can be understood. The disruption is the same, but the heart of it is different. The Uninvited’s disruption and conflict comes from its Western aspects such as using ‘sex appeal’ and its ‘final girl’ nods. A Tale of Two Sisters’ disruption and conflict comes from the culturally rooted assumptions of what the role of the mother should be in the household, using those understandings as a foundation for its psychological horror.

Could this be the reason for Two Sisters being a hit overseas? Whilst The Uninvited relies solely on typical Western horror tropes to create its narrative, something not necessarily found in South Korean horror films (e.g. the way sex and sexuality is portrayed), Two Sisters utilises its cultural roots and adapts them to the genre with transnationally recognisable horror tropes, such as the figure of the evil stepmother and the haunting ghosts, to create something that is both accessible to international audiences and simultaneously introduces a newness to their understanding and experience of the genre. I believe that by combining both culture/tradition and genre expectations to engage multiple audiences, Two Sisters became a widely enjoyable film that The Uninvited did not achieve, as it relied on the genre expectations of its own country’s industry and nothing else.

SUMMARY

A Tale of Two Sisters, whilst a South Korean film, does feature some American horror tropes that update it further from its original folktale. This could be another reason for its international success as it appeals to audiences outside of its Korean one. However, it’s clearly more recognisable as a culturally-specific tale, and I believe its international success comes from the cultural aspects that have been updated and genre-fied to appeal to mass contemporary audiences. There is a heavier impact from the misé-en-scene that engages the viewer and wraps you up its in eerie atmosphere, whereas The Uninvited does not. Instances of clever lighting techniques and use of set design to show the duality of the characters are used though, such as the shot in which Anna says ‘I’m not crazy’ to her (dead) sister as she is reflected in the mirror. This is a common technique used not just in horror but other genres to subtly show a double or duality of the character. The Uninvited is not without merit, nor is it a bad watch, but it is incomparable to the higher standard of A Tale of Two Sisters which utilises misé-en-scene and a non-linear narrative comprising of flashbacks to further the mysterious and psychological aspects, rather than the more basic or expected tropes of the The Uninvited. This is one of the reasons for its success, coupled with the fact that its cultural basis has led to a deeper thematic meaning which both Korean and Western audiences can grasp.

Even if this argument is wrong, that A Tale of Two Sisters gained international success partly due to its cultural input, or that The Uninvited didn’t do as well because of its lack of culture, it’s still interesting to compare an original film with its remake, particularly when one of the two is from a different country and culture. Those cultural elements can evidently become lost in the ‘translation’ of the original to the remake, and unfortunately lead to an underwhelming remake when it was the original’s cultural richness that helped it succeed. This also isn’t to say that Western countries have no culture, but the appearance of a middle-class nuclear American family in their lakehouse doesn’t quite compare to the structure of the family and its significance in Korea that is evident in its folklore that has lasted centuries. So, even if this argument is wrong, cultural comparisons are an interesting topic nonetheless, and South Korean films are continually gaining more and more (deserved) recognition in Western countries. Finally.

Works consulted: Korean Horror Cinema (Alison Pierce & Daniel Martin, 2013)

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