Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Kim Ji-Woon's A TALE OF TWO SISTERS: The New Korean Cinema and the Contemporary Horror Film

Since the 1960s, the popular cinemas of the U.S. and East Asia have always been in profitable and reciprocal dialog.  When I was a kid growing up in Houston, Texas, I couldn’t get enough of the Japanese kaiju-eiga, or giant monster films, whenever they played on afternoon or late-night TV.  Even then, I was amazed that the fearsome Godzilla came out of his slumber near the Marshall Islands just to besiege Perry Mason.  When I saw the stylish but  threadbare Yongary, Monster From the Deep (1967), I was never told that this was not a Japanese monster film at all but rather an appropriation of the kaiju-eiga genre by South Korean studio Kuk Dong.

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967)

 Of course horror as a mood or style pre-dated the international ambitions exemplified by Yongary.  For years, films for the domestic South Korean audience had contained horrific elements, and recent Western critical forays into Korean horror have drawn attention to the 1960s and 1970s films of director Kim Ki-Young, particularly his 1960 domestic shocker, The Housemaid.  Still, horror constituted a minor voice in the “Golden Age of Korean Cinema” of the 1960s and 1970s.   
Kim Ki-Young's horror masterpiece The Housemaid (1960)


One of the reasons for this was government censorship.  The Motion Picture Law, originally signed by military dictator Park Chung-Hee in 1962 was, in its various incarnations in those decades, primarily a set of strictures designed to regulate motion picture content through the licensing of film companies and productions and the establishing of import quotas to provide marginal support for the domestic film industry.  Thirty years later, the administration of Kim Young-Sam, the first democratically elected government in decades, began a thawing of government control of the culture industries in favor of support, seeing in them a potential for both cultural and economic growth for the Republic of Korea.  Kim's administration, along with that of his successor Kim Dae-Jung, oversaw an explosive growth of South Korean cinema both domestically and throughout the region at the turn of the new millennium.  During this period of growth, the horror film re-emerged as a dominant production trend, and Kim Ji-Woon's 2003 film, A Tale of Two Sisters, is both an illustrative and distinctive example of how horror movies fit into the South Korean Film Renaissance.

                       President Kim Young-Sam                           President Kim Dae-Jung

     The final amendment of the Motion Picture Law in 1985 came about as a result of pressure from the U.S. Motion Picture Export Association to “open up” the South Korean market to competition from Hollywood, and the amendment led to the Hollywood studios’ opening branch offices in Korea to distribute their own films on the peninsula.  

While the retention of the Screen Quota in the Law was one of the policies which kept American films from completely strangling the domestic film industry, it was only part of a broader strategy of government policy designed to strengthen South Korean industry beyond that of film and media.   In 1994, President Kim Young-Sam announced a new policy of globalization, or sangyewha, in which South Korea was to commit itself to a full engagement with international markets in all aspects of industry.  

This policy was designed first to foster the export of Korean goods, services, and technology to the world market.  In the sphere of cultural production, this would succeed beyond President Kim’s wildest dreams some ten years later with the phenomenon of hanryu, or the Korean craze, in movies, television, and popular music throughout East Asia and even the U.S., where musical artist Psy's performance of the hit single "Gangnam Style" became a national obsession in late 2012.  But a crucial, secondary goal of sangyewha was to shore up markets on the peninsula against competition from heavily capitalized foreign rivals.  Between 1996 and 2000, in the final years of Kim Young Sam administration and the first years of those of his successor, Kim Dae Jung, the Motion Picture Law was replaced by a series of laws designed to promote and support the film industry.  

At the same time, the powerful conglomerate corporations, or chaebol, which dominated the most profitable sectors of Korean industry, moved into motion picture financing.  Through their immense capital resources, the chaebol were able to finance a roster of movies, buy or rent theaters in which to show them, and distribute them throughout the peninsula, thus providing a rival to Hollywood’s newly opened branch offices.  The chaebol invested heavily in infrastructure and insisted on preplanning, detailed budgets, and market research as the basis for their investment in films.  In fact, the movies produced under their aegis came to be called “planned films” because of the extensive pre-production market research that went into their scripting, shooting, and marketing.  At the same time, the government replaced many of the weathered institutions designed to regulate the movie industry with newer organizations designed to promote and support it, such as the Korean Film Commission.  Throughout the nineties, this system, with the chaebol providing production financing in exchange for rights to the film in both theatrical release and ancillary markets such as home video, kept a steady stream of commercial films moving through the domestic market with the aid of the Screen Quota Law. Shiri (1999), the high-voltage political thriller directed by Kang Jye-Gu, was one of the most successful of the later planned films and was profitably exported throughout the region, becoming a sizable hit in Japan and Hong Kong.

     Kang Jye-Gu's riveting Shiri (1999)

But in the late nineties, at precisely the time that many of the chaebol were beginning to realize that the profits generated by motion picture financing were not as extensive or reliable as they had hoped, shock waves surged through the economies of East Asia.  In the summer of 1997, just days after the return of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China, the Thai bhat underwent a massive devaluation, and western investors began a precipitous withdrawal from investment In the “tiger” economies of East Asia.  In October, the South Korean stock market crashed, and the International Monetary fund lent huge sums of money to South Korea in exchange for corporate and investment reform.  Real estate values plummeted, and many chaebol sold off their high risk, intermittently profitable entertainment divisions.

     The last years of the twentieth century brought the South Korean movie industry to critical mass.  The withdrawal of the chaebol from motion picture financing was followed by an influx of venture capital, which provided partial financing for a wide range of films rather than footing the entire bill in exchange for control of content and distribution as had the chaebol.  But it was in the cratering of the real estate market that South Korean cinema found its salvation.  Heavily capitalized theater interests from Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States began buying up prime urban real estate and building new multiplex theaters.  Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest, Australia’s Village Roadshow Pictures, and Korea’s CJ Entertainment combined resources to open the first multiplex theater chain in South Korea, the CGV (Cinema Golden Village) circuit.  Other companies followed, and the proliferation of screens in South Korea after 1998 provided large numbers of domestic films prime playing time in state of the art theaters thanks to the Screen Quota Law.
The peerless Cinema Golden Village exhibition circuit with theaters throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim.  CVG also developed the 4DX digital projection process, seen on the right at the Regal Cinema in Los Angeles
 But, unlike decades before, where domestic distributors instructed their production subsidiaries to crank out hastily executed “quota quickies” to gain statutory entitlement to issue popular titles from Hollywood and Hong Kong, South Korean cinema was undergoing a major generational shift in the years of liberalization and globalization.  Many of the younger workers in the film industry had gone to film schools in South Korea or the west in the 1980s and had developed a passion for both experimental and independent films as well as the popular genre cinema of Hollywood, Hong Kong, and their native South Korea.  Then, in 1996, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled that government pre-censorship of films, the lynch pin of the old Motion Picture Law, was unconstitutional.  The following year, under the revised Film Promotion Law, the government censorship board was replaced by a civilian board which would assign ratings to films in a manner modeled on Hollywood’s Motion Picture Association of America.

Kim Ji-Woon in his trademark baseball cap
It was during this period of generational turnover in the film industry and the heavily supported increase in promotion, education, and infrastructure that the young Kim Ji-Woon entered filmmaking.  The breakdown of the apprentice system in the studios and the rise of film schools as training ground for new film talent was mirrored in a large number of contests, grant programs, and awards for aspiring screenwriters.  After spending most of his twenties as a stage actor and director in Seoul, Kim achieved renown with his direction of two plays in 1995, Hot Sea and Movie Movie.  His higher profile coincided with an extremely productive period writing screenplays, which he submitted to a number of government and private competitions.  In 1997, his screenplay Wonderful Season won the Premiere “Best Screenplay” prize and The Quiet Family won the Best Screenplay prize in a contest run by the Korean film magazine Cine21. 

     The Quiet Family was produced in 1998 by the Myung Film Company, and the modestly budgeted horror comedy was a surprise hit for the company on the strength of its bold concept and incisive writing.  This story of a family running a rural boarding house who find their guests dying, first by accident, then at the family’s own hands, is mostly familiar to Western movie fans through its bizarre 2001 Japanese musical remake, The Happiness of the Katakuris, directed by Takashi Miike, the bad boy of New Japanese Cinema.  
The Quiet Family (1998)

Myung Film had been formed in 1996 by Shim Chae-Myong, one of the most successful women in the Korean film industry, who had proved adept at coordinating the market research, planning, scripting, shooting, and promoting of a number of planned films during the era of chaebol financing.  One of her colleagues, Oh Jung-Wan, had spent a decade in a similar role at SINCINE, a production company also making planned films.  In 1996, Oh formed B.O.M. Film Productions (named after the Korean word for “spring” and “sight”) with an eye toward making modestly budgeted commercial films carefully marketed to both the domestic market and the broader box office of East Asia.  Their first film was The Foul King (2000), written and directed by Kim Ji-Woon.  

Oh Jung-Wan at Brussells' CinemAsia Film Festival in 2015

If The Quiet Family’s desperate protagonists were an oblique portrayal of the decimated Korean Everyman's family in the IMF years, The Foul King was a scalding and undisguised satire in its story of a timid bank employee who seeks a measure of self respect in an evening job as a small-time professional wrestler.  The movie constantly juxtaposes the hapless protagonist’s efforts to learn how to “cheat” in the ring in his role as masked villain with his bank boss’s psychological and physical bullying in an attempt to force him to approve fraudulent bank loans identical to the crony capitalist schemes which brought about the stock market crash and the IMF bailout in the first place.  The movie was a huge hit, for a time holding the all-time domestic box office record, and was a big score for Edko Films in Hong Kong, where Stephen Chow Sing-Chee provided dubbed Cantonese interior monologues for the hero.
The Foul King (2000)

B.O.M. actively participated in pan-Asian coproductions and tapped its star director to make one of the three horror stories in the omnibus horror anthology Three in 2002.  Kim’s contribution, “Memories,” intercut the memories, fantasies, and delusions of a man whose wife is missing and the woman herself, who is aimlessly wandering the streets.  In a twist ending with roots in both Ambrose Bierce's 19th-century short story, "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999) , we learn that the husband has beaten the wife to death and decapitated her and that her “memories” are the final stirrings of a nervous system in its flickering death throes.  

"Going Home" from Three (2002)

Along with segments directed by Hong Kong’s Peter Chan Ho-Sun and Thailand’s Nonzee Nimibutr, Three was a notable hit in South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Thailand, and a sequel, Three: Extremes, with short films by three other Asian directors, appeared in 2004.

    Kim's  A Tale of Two Sisters from 2003 exemplifies many aesthetic, cultural, and economic trends crucial to understanding South Korean cinema in the early years of the twenty-first century.  The horror genre proved, along with the action thriller, to be one of the most lucrative genres for producers and distributors seeking to capture the diverse audiences throughout East Asia and, either directly or through remake rights, the American market as well.  A Tale of Two Sisters both mobilizes and transforms some of the most distinctive motifs of Asian horror while nodding to Hollywood blockbusters, such as The Sixth Sense, which were popular in Asia, as well.  In this, the movie is actively engaged with the process of segyehwa in its willingness to be transformed by models of cultural production from Hong Kong, Hollywood, and elsewhere in the hopes of reaching a market outside of the Korean peninsula.  It also represents the other side of Korea’s globalization namely, the active transformation of international models of cultural production through their contact with specifically Korean themes and motifs.

1936 film version, directed by
         Hong Gae-Myong
1956 film version, directed by
           Jong Chang-Hwa

1972 film version, directed by
Lee Yu-Seob
The Korean title of A Tale of Two Sisters is Janghwa, Hongryeon or “Red Rose, Red Lotus.”  It is based on a 15th century Korean folktale by that name, which is the story of two sisters, Janghwa, the Red Rose, and her younger sister, Hongreyon, the Red Lotus.  They are born to a virtuous woman, Jong-Yi, who has a premonition of her pregnancy with Hongreyon of a red flower entering her bosom.  When the girls were still small, Jong-Yi became ill and died.  The father, Bae, married an evil and manipulative woman, Hu-Si, in the hope of siring a male heir.  Hu-Si had three sons but was jealous of the daughters and scalded a dead rat which she smeared in blood and placed under the covers of Jangwha’s bed, accusing her of aborting an unwanted illegitimate child.  Hu-Si proposed to the enraged and credulous Bae that her oldest son take Jangwha out under false pretenses and drown her in a lotus pond.  Before leaving on her fatal journey, Jangwha said to Hongryeon, “When I am gone, put on my dress and think of me.”  The son took Jangwha out to a lake and drowned her, and the evil stepmother continued to berate and abuse the grieving Hongryeon.  One day, she followed a bluebird to the lotus pond where Jangwha had been drowned and threw herself in.  Years later, the unquiet souls entreated the King to investigate their deaths, and when accused of their murder, Hu-Si told the judge that she still possessed the corpse of the aborted baby.  When she produced it in court, it was unrecognizable, but when Bae cut the “baby” open, rat pellets dropped out of its belly, and Hu-Si was drawn and quartered, her limbs placed on sticks at the entrance to town.

     Kim’s screenplay works an intricate set of variations on the motifs of the Korean folk tale, which is itself redolent of many of the themes of contemporaneous Asian horror seen in films such as the Japanese films Ringu (1996) and Ju-On (2003):  the centrality of the mother-child relationship; the absent, ineffectual, or infirm patriarch; the vengeful female spirit; the displacement of traditional phallic horror imagery with haeteric, womb-like spaces; and the association of menarch with vengeful parental resentment and crippling guilt.  The movie also re-situates many of the most striking images of the tale into a modern context.  The evil stepmother is now Eun-Joo, former nurse colleague to the physician father, who begins as caretaker to the bedridden, mentally ill mother and gradually adopts the role of spouse to the bewildered and passive father.  

Eun-Joo prepares for Bae to come to bed

The scalded rat and the bluebird who calls Hongryeon to her heath are condensed into the stepmother Eun-Joo’s dead bird which is discovered beneath the rose patterned quilt of the doomed Soo-Yeon, the Red Rose or Jangwha figure.  Soo-Mi, the Hongryeon or Red Lotus character, “puts on the dress” of her dead sister in her first appearance at the house, wearing the top half of Soo-Yeon’s dress at the lake where the two share an idyllic moment in Soo-Mi’s fantasy.  

Soo-Mi / Hongryeon / Red Lotus (left)       
Soo-Yeon / Jangwha / Red Rose (right)     

And the bloody laundry bag, supposedly carrying the corpse of Soo-Yeon, recalls the guilt-provoking bag from the folk tale which contains the dead rat.  Later, in Soo-Mi’s vengeful fantasy from her hospital bed, Eun-Joo goes to the haunted wardrobe, opens the ancient laundry bag, and the fetid remains of Soo-Yeon ooze out onto the floor and onto the terrified stepmother.

     Screenwriter Kim has feathered these indigenous motifs into a structure which demonstrates a mastery of classical storytelling.  In the film's opening scene, the first questions of the psychiatrist to the near-catatonic Soo-Mi is a bald statement of the film’s twin narrative enigmas: “Who do you think you are?  Can you tell me about that day?”  The film’s hour and fifty minutes conform almost perfectly to the “three act structure” beloved of script readers for Hollywood studios.  Act One runs thirty two minutes and ends with Eun-Joo’s confrontation of Soo-Mi about going into her room.  Act Two begins with Soo-Mi’s nightmare flashbacks and appearance of the mother’s ghost and lasts 39 minutes, until the father tells Soo-Mi that “Soo-Yeon is dead.”  And Act Three lasts 34 minutes and takes us to the final shot of the solitrary Soo-Mi at the lake and the end credits.

     But it is the last thirty minutes of the film, widely criticized by online fans and some critics for confusion and opacity, that Kim works his most distinctive variations on both the classical model of movie storytelling and the Janghwa Hongryeon legend itself.  Act Three doubles the revelation that what we have seen is Soo-Mi’s fantasy of Soo-Yeon’s presence in the house with the revelation that the stepmother, Eun-Joo, has been an apparition as well.  After the real Eun-Joo, a concerned and guilt-ridden step-parent, is revealed entering the father’s study in a monochromatic business suit, a rapid montage reveals that it was Soo-Mi who had killed the pet bird, Soo-Mi who had put on makeup and crawled into bed awaiting the arrival of the father, Soo-Mi who had told the rambling and incoherent tale at the dinner table, and  Soo-Mi who had hallucinated being grabbed the mother's decomposed corpse under the kitchen sink while reaching for one of the mother's hairpins on the floor.  

The bedraggled Soo-Mi is taken to the mental hospital, where yet again we enter her nightmare world.  The film seems to be crosscutting between the guilt ridden Soo-Mi and the equally remorseful and tortured Eun-Joo, who knows that the sisters  had realized her affair with Bae began before the severely mentally ill mother's death and who is plagued with remorse that Soo-Yeon had died under the fallen wardrobe upstairs while she bitterly fought with Soo-Mi.  The fantasy punishment Soo-Mi metes out to Eun-Joo when she is covered with the slime of Soo-Yeon's decomposed remains is revealed to be a replaying in her mind of Soo-Yeon's own discovering of her suicidal mother's hanging corpse in the same dresser and suffocating under its capsized weight.  

Su-Yeon smothers while Soo-Mi argues
with Bae and Eun-Joo downstairs       

              Writing about the film spectator's constant framing and testing hypotheses of unity and coherence even in the absence of clear narrative cues, David Bordwell has observed that “as [narrative] causality is weakened, parallelism comes to the fore.”  As the events presented onscreen in A Tale of Two Sisters leave gaps or seemingly unmotivated repetitions in place of readily comprehensible cues, visual and aural motifs dizzily proliferate, giving the film a striking formal unity.  The dead bird discovered under Soo-Yeon’s sheets evokes the pheasant carcass at Eun-Joo’s flawlessly elegant dinner party, a bourgeois utopia which unravels into insanity, epilepsy, vomiting, and ghostly apparitions. 

The monochromatic world of the mental hospital is contrasted with the rich color tones and multiple textures of the house, but the scene in which Soo-Yeon is revealed to be dead and and a figment of Soo-Mi’s imagination returns to a bleached out palette.  

The shame that Soo-Mi experiences at her menstrual period staining the sheets is first attributed to her ghostly mother, then to her sister, then to Eun-Joo (the women supposedly all get their period on the same day) and finally to the blood drenched laundry bag, which is dragged across the floor leaving an immense trail of gore in every adolescent girl’s phobic terror of menstrual uncleanliness.

     A Tale of Two Sisters' imagery of lotus and rose blossoms and the cultural meanings that they evoke provide one of the film's most powerful forces pulling the film toward formal unity in spite of its elliptical and elusive narrative structure, especially in its second half.  The mysterious pattern of white and red lotuses (symbolic in East and South Asian cultures of compassion, fertility, motherhood, and resurrection) and red roses (the official flower of South Korea which is symbolic of immortality) we see swirling under the credits, is the wallpaper in the dining room.  All of the scenes of conflict and hostility in the dining room play out with the florid wallpaper in sharp focus framing the action.  A Tale of Two Sisters, like many horror films, uses the family meal, perhaps the central symbol of everyday “normality” next to heterosexual romance, to underscore the misery, dysfunction, and claustrophobic incestuous desire at the heart of the film’s family.  Food is knocked off the table, a teapot is shattered on the ground by an enraged Soo-Mi, and Soo-Yeon pours the bowl of soup prepared by Eun-Joo in a gesture of “motherhood” into the trash can right in front of her.  Soo-Yeon is first seen sniffing (and then eating) the last dying rose petals from a vine, and a rose motif covers both the blanket under which the dead bird is discovered in Soo-Mi's hallucination and the doors to the dresser.  The twin resonance of the lotus, associated with Soo-Mi, the red lotus of the film's title, with fertility and funerary rites is at the heart of Kim's specifically Korean cultural inflection of the horror genre's characteristic conflation of the forces of Eros and Thanatos.  Soo-Yeon, the red rose, is associated with the womb-like enclosed spaces of the dresser, the dining room, and the covered bird cage, which all characterize female domesticity but are recast as the tomb-like successively diminishing spaces which are a dominant feature of the mise-en-sc√®ne in many horror films.

The final violent confrontation between Soo Mi and Eun Joo, the event that occurs right before the film reveals that Eun-Joo's presence in the home is a projection of Soo Mi's guilt and rage, is set up to play like the final scene in a slasher film but is quickly elided when the father comes home, administers tranquilizers to "Eun-Joo" and discovers the would-be murder weapon, a plaster statue of a man covering his eyes in a resolute gesture of refusal to see what is happening around him, broken on the ground next to Soo Mi like the tea service set she had shattered earlier in the film.

                    Note the teapot used as a weapon

     The international character of A Tale of Two Sisters is visible everywhere, from the Japanesque images of female abjection, downswept hair covering grimacing visages in the first appearances of both Soo-Mi and her mother’s ghost to the plot devices of the deceased twin d√∂ppelganger from Hollywood’s The Other (1972) - which even features the discovery of an infant corpse in a cask of wine - and certain plot twists from The Sixth Sense which I am honor bound not to reveal.  But running alongside these moving threads, sometimes parallel, sometimes converging, sometimes sharply diverging, are distinctive elements from the mythology, film culture, and lived experience of Koreans.  A Tale of Two Sisters is a hybrid film, both genre cinema and art cinema, both Korean and international, both in dialog with the institution of Hollywood and in conflict with it.  As critic and film historian Ji Yung-Shin notes, “These hybrid cultural forms provide an important means for [Koreans’] self definition, a self-definition that not only distances itself from a xenophobic and moralizing adherence to local cultural `tradition’ but also challenges Western cultural hegemony.”  As Hollywood looks more frequently to Asia both for models of popular cinema (A Tale of Two Sisters was remade as The Uninvited by Dreamworks in 2009) and for box office revenue for its own films and as the popular cinemas of East Asia move beyond national borders to encompass the region in new ways, this hybridization is certain to accelerate and move in exciting and unpredictable new ways. 

The last ten years has seen an explosion of excellent English-language scholarship on the new South Korean cinema.  Here are some of the books from which I have learned much about the historical context from which A Tale of Two Sisters emerged.

Coming soon:  An essay on Shaw Bros' 1961 romantic melodrama Love Without End, directed by Doe Chin and starring the tragic beauty Linda Lin-Dai.