A Tale of Two Sisters
Janghwa, Hongryeon aka A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, dir. Kim Jee-Woon)
We all know that fairy tales and folklore were never really meant to be made into Disney movies. They are brutal, sadistic at times, and were made to scare the living daylights out of both children and adults; the leaps and bounds it takes to turn them into animated musicals might astound you. And the recent rash of “dark” retellings are actually more in line with their source material than the softened versions that most of us have grown up with. So when I tell you that Janghwa, Hongryeon is a fairy tale, you’ll know what I mean. It does very little to fluff up its source material, the oft-adapted folktale “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” (or “The story of Rose Flower and Red Lotus”—go check out the detailed Wikipedia entry for the bones of this ghastly cautionary tale), and it isn’t an accident that this is the highest grossing Korean horror film, and the first to be screened in America, keeping as it does with many of the things we have already learned from fairy tales: stepmothers are evil, and girls on the verge of becoming women are terrifying things indeed.
The film opens with Bae Su-Mi (Su-jeong Lim), a shell-shocked teenaged girl being treated at a psychiatric facility. A doctor shows her pictures and asks her if she remembers what happened “that day,” but she does not respond—she barely shows signs that she can hear what he is asking. The scene cuts to the arrival of a town car at a beautiful house on a lake in the countryside. Su-mi and her younger sister, Su-yeon (Geun-young Moon) get out of the car and stare at the house, and then trail off to sit by the lake. They seem apprehensive about their visit, and the reason why is made immediately clear: their overbearing, haughty, and pristinely gorgeous stepmother (Jung-ah Yum) greets them forcedly, and we know immediately that this is not a happy family.
As the girls’ stay at the home begins to unfurl, strange things begin to happen around the house: clothing has been set out twice, closets are filled with identical outfits, noises are heard, and well, there’s also those pesky ghosts. Those terrifying, pesky ghosts. The strangeness causes increased tensions between Su-Mi and her stepmother—the girl can barely speak to her parents without spitting—and the stepmother quickly begins to unruffle, especially when faced with trying to please her quiet and withdrawn husband (Kap-su Kim). Su-Mi is also increasingly protective of her younger sister, who seems to be getting the worst of the stepmother’s negative attentions, waking covered in bruises and blamed for the death of the stepmother’s beloved pet birds, as well as not seeming strong enough to withstand the horrifying events of the house. Things really take a turn when the girls’ aunt and uncle (Lee Seung-Bi and Woo Ki-hong) visit for one of the most awkward and grotesque family dinners of all time. The stilted perfection that the stepmother has tried to impose on the home begins to unravel, all leading up to a sequence of flashbacks that tell us how this dark family drama began—with the girls’ mother deathly ill, and her nurse, the now-stepmother, allowing a devastating chain of events to transpire while Su-Mi remains unaware.
The images in this film—and the darkly saturated color palette, enhanced by the opulent décor of the home—are chilling at best, deeply disturbing at worst. Those long-haired ghosts who have populated many of the Asian horror films over the past few years (including Ju-on and Ringu ) make an insane appearance in this home, twitching and sliding around the frames of the rooms and shaking up the home’s reality, but they aren’t even remotely the worst of it. What lands the troubled Su-Mi in the psychiatric facility is core-shaking, and the stepmother, despite the many ways she is actually quite sympathetic (no one-dimensional characters here!), loses so much of her charm when we find out what she has done. It is confusingly shot—in fact, sometimes even the dialogue is unsettling because of the way the characters seem to talk around their issues, accusing people of doing things without ever actually saying it. And to top it all off, this film is brutally gorgeous—it is almost like a ballet, at times, with scenes twirling around one another uncontextualized until you have all of the elements you need to put the pieces into a working order. I am hard pressed to think of another film that is so emotionally affecting as it is stunning, let alone one that has terrified me the way this one did (and still does). This isn’t an easy film—it doesn’t map everything out neatly or spell things out in an orderly fashion—but the high level of difficulty is one of the things that makes it so unsettling, and so utterly unforgettable. Few films have stuck with me the way that this one has, and it still holds its power after many viewings. There certainly aren’t any happy endings here, that’s for sure.
Next Installment: The House of the Devil