Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Night 8: Janghwa, Hongryeon/A Tale of Two Sisters

"Do you know what's really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can't go away, you see. And... and it follows you around like a ghost."

Having sampled a bit of Japanese horror in the past, I felt that I might need a warm-up before plunging headlong into that world of raven-haired wraiths in reverse. Last night's selection was a South Korean film called Janghwa, Hongryeon. The literal translation is Rose Flower, Red Lotus, which is apparently the name of a Korean folk tale, upon which the film is based. Obviously, that sailed straight over my head, so I had to settle for the entirely unevocative English title of A Tale of Two Sisters.

I have to admit, I spent much of this film confused. The pacing was all over the place--almost painfully slow at points, too fast to keep up at others. The editing was often abrupt and non-linear. At certain key moments I failed to discern exactly who was doing what to whom. This was all intentional on the filmmaker's part, as it turns out, and once every piece of the puzzle was finally out of the box, I was able to fit them together. What emerged, in retrospect, was a near-masterpiece of a psychological thriller that rivals the best of Polanski and Hitchcock.

You'll notice I said psychological thriller. The film does have several tense and truly frightening scenes (similar in style and technique to what I've seen of j-horror), but on the whole I think it shares a greater affinity with classic thrillers like Repulsion or Psycho than with its Japanese contemporaries. It's all relative of course--yesteryear's horror is today's thriller. Whatever you call it, Janghwa, Hongryeon is extremely well-made. The cinematography is first-rate; master's theses could be written on its use of color, its menstrual imagery, and the cloying creepiness of flower prints. Director Kim Ji-woon turns a big, beautiful house into a cold and claustrophobic emotional maze, where nothing is as it seems and vengeful ghosts lurk behind every door.

The lines I quoted above are spoken towards the end of the film, and nicely convey its plot in a non-specific way. Once we finally understand what, exactly, needs to be forgotten, the full weight of Janghwa, Hongryeon comes crashing down on us with suffocating force. Everything makes sense again but the cold light of understanding brings with it a terrible chill that lingers long after the film is over.

Janghwa, Hongryeon is currently being remade by Hollywood for a 2009 release, to be titled The Uninvited.

Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
Scare Factor:

My psychological status:
uptight, but that has as much do with the debates as it does last night's selection

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