Thursday, October 31, 2013

#1 장화, 홍련 / A Tale of Two Sisters

So, here is the moment that all of you have been waiting for...the big Halloween reveal of my #1 horror movie of the season...but before I continue...I'd like to point out a few things...

When I embarked on this little, experimental journey I thought no one would find it of interest, but oddly enough, two fans came forward (one through global and one through email) telling me that they, firstly, enjoyed my BGEast work, and secondly, were loving the work I was doing on my blog, especially the horror movie countdown. This was news to me as I thought that, if anything, these reviews were a cathartic exercise for me and were challenging me to get in the habit of writing more often.

I was even more surprised to find that my review of The Ghost is now the highest viewed entry of this blog, while I'm shocked at this since movie reviews are not the focus of the blog (do I even have a main focus? No you don't) I feel somewhat...vindicated...

But alas, this is the end of the series (for now), I plan on bringing it back every year with a different batch of obscure, underrated, forgotten, and older horror movies (this year's choices stretched all the way back to 1990!) I may drop a review here and there but this is purely a seasonal thing, so if it wasn't your bag, I get it. Start your own damn blog.

My picks for the order of the ranked movies was not based on personal preference, beyond grabbing them out of my DVD book, because one common theme in this series was, "I don't remember what I felt about these movies beyond remembering maybe liking them." Another common theme is a little more subtle (not to mention  purely coincidental) and you'll get big kudos if you email or comment here telling me the prevailing theme that these movies shared...I'm looking for one word here.

The order of these movies was dependent upon their respective RT ratings (my favorite website), if there was not an official score, I went with the audience rating. Judging by the long-windedness of their reviews, I liked these movies a lot more than most people.

I fell behind a few times and I admit that I'm racing the clock and trying not to sacrifice quality and giving tonight's movie its due (because it didn't earn my top spot for no reason) even now.

Then get on with it! Noone wants to hear about how clever you think you are, you pretentious twat...that's my job!

Sigh, fine then, Drake...

Most people view movies for purely escapist reasons, my reasons stretch a little further. I want a story that challenges me to think, that makes me question things. I also watch a movie for who directed it, who wrote it, who's starring in it. This often irritates my friends because, in the same way, I rarely watch trailers (trailers always play as a greatest hits reel). If I hear about a movie with a great premise, or I hear who's attached to the project, I ignore reviews, trailers, everything and just go see it. So when I invite friends out to a movie, their first question is, "What's that about?" And my answer goes something like, "I dunno, but I wanna see it."

Tonight's film comes by way of South Korea, again. I can't help it! These people are fucking beautiful and moody as hell!

 A Tale of Two Sisters / Janghwa, Hongryeon
Su-mi, a young girl, meets a doctor in a sterile room, alone with the one man who holds her fate in his hands...for now. He tries to coax her to remember why she's in this hospital, to remember what put her under his care. Her eyes are downcast and her lips unmoving, silent, near catatonic.

The timeline is a bit confusing, we don't know how long Su-mi has been in the hospital but she's finally getting to go home to move back in with her father and her sister, Su-yeon. A bit of a surprise is waiting for her as her widower father has moved his girlfriend, Eun-joo, in as well. It is clear from the chemistry between Su-mi and Eun-joo that they have history and haven't got along.

Discussions bounce back and forth between Su-mi and Su-yeon as we come to learn that their mother died a while back and that Eun-joo is apparently their stepmother. Eun-joo, when the girls' father is not around, tries to assert her new maternal authority, both girls balking; Su-mi more openly defiant, and Su-yeon a timid mouse that fears Eun-joo.

One night, Su-mi notices that Su-yeon is acting weird and soon makes the girl spill whats going on and gets a look at the bruises on her arms. Su-mi becomes convinced that, in her absence, Eun-joo began abusing Su-yeon and begins plotting ways to make the woman leave so that they can get back to some semblance of a happy family life.

As time goes on, Su-mi and Su-yeon, laboring under the scary power trip that Eun-joo has gone on, begin to see apparitions in the house. The house seemingly coming to life and frightening them... a woman crawling through their bedroom at night (the first time I watched this film, this scene in particular caused me to start shaking in fear, terrifying me so much that I was forced to shut off the film and come back to at a later time), visions of a skinless humanoid form screaming with the voice of an infant and reaching out from beneath the blankets for them.

This movie unfolds slowly, beautifully, with subtle clues leading to the climax when all (well, most) is explained. Why the haunting? What is Su-mi so pissed about? Why is their mother dead? How? Why won't their father step in?

Su-mi goes to her father complaining about the mysterious goings-on in their home and complaining about "that woman you brought home."  Her father brushes her off, suggesting that maybe Su-mi has not healed from the earlier trauma, that maybe she's having trouble adjusting, and needs a little more time away.

Su-mi feeling alone in her battle, as if she and her sister are the only ones seeing what's going on, withdraws into herself and spends more time with Su-yeon.

One morning Eun-joo comes into Su-yeon's room in a rage screaming at her asking her what she's done. We are left floundering, confused with Su-yeon and Eun-joo loses her shit, demanding Su-yeon get out of bed. Eun-joo eyes a weird abnormality in Su-yeon's bed. Yanking the covers back, she finds the bloody form of her best friend, a pet bird, in Su-yeon's mattress.

Flying into an even bigger rage she throws Su-yeon into her wardrobe, locking her in as she screams and struggles, trapped in the dark, fighting to get free. Eun-joo tortures her, forcing her to confess to the murder of the bird and apologize before she frees her. Su-yeon finally acquiesces and Eun-joo opens the door, demanding that she stop crying and apologize again. Before Su-yeon can catch her breath and comply, she is soon shut up in the tight, dark wardrobe again.

And that's probably all that happens in the first half and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of just what this fabulous piece of cinema is really all about. It's an intricately-woven story that reveals just enough along the way to give you have the information you need to merely follow the story, not revealing the bigger picture until it's time. And Jesus it is unveiled in grand fashion.

This film is quiet, even in its dark, intensely scary moments, punctuated by very brief musical stingers. I've already mentioned the climbing-into-bed scene, but there's other moments, like the dinner party, where Eun-joo reminds her brother, Sun-kyu, of stories in hysterical fashion only for him to rebuff her by saying he doesn't remember anything of what she's relayed. Sun-kyu's wife soon has a massive freak out, nearly seizing on the floor for unknown reasons.

A few minutes later we're treated to just what caused her fit as Eun-joo bends down to pick up a hair pin. This scene one of the many stand outs in the film as the suspense builds and builds, the director teasing you because you know the jump-scare is coming, right about... here? Oh, I guess it's not going to... HOLY SHIT!!! I've seen this film countless times and the aforementioned experience was what I had on this viewing. It's the horror movie equivalent of edging, and Jesus Christ, the payoff is gratifying.

The setting of the isolated countryside of South Korea is breathtaking, looking as if the story is taking place in early-to-mid fall. The girls comfortable enough to wear breathable clothing and swirl their feet in the lake as they reunite on the dock, the tall grass blowing in the wind having turned to browns and yellows.

The music is sparse, instead letting the images and story lend gravity to this tale (which is based on a Korean folk-tale which is pretty fucked up in its own right) drawing you in with only tastes of what's to come.

I like how intentional the pacing of the film is, it's as if we're watching the spontaneous creation of something. Just for the sake of illustration, let's say we're sitting and watching Da Vinci paint the Last Supper, he just picking up a brush as inspiration hits him and going with it (despite Dan Brown's theories) the big picture being revealed to him at the same time it is being revealed to us. We're watching a masterpiece being brought to life, our reactions breathing into an inanimate object the breath of life.

We watch Su-mi and Eun-joo battle it out, psychologically (who do you trust? The daughter sent away for being sick or your new blushing bride?) and eventually physically, Eun-joo asking "How did we get ourselves to this point?" as she holds a statuette over Su-mi's head. It's a dazzlingly beautiful display of violence, the blood not so much shocking as it is necessary, to punctuate just how mortal and serious this is. One of the women is seen beating a bulging, bloodied bag with a fireplace poker (another iconic scene, for me anyways).

As the story draws to a close, an unexpected visitor's arrival pulls the thread out of this beautiful tapestry and pulls the curtain back on the story, revealing what we just witnessed, connecting the pieces we were given and the film's true story is exposed to the light.

While not as draining on the heart as Jacob's Ladder was, A Tale of Two Sisters is heartbreaking and bleak. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking from any country. Its power in the fact that it's one of the first SoKo movies to be screened in cinemas across the US.

It eventually influenced an English-language remake which tweaked the story in some big ways but still kept the tone and plot similar enough to satisfy me, but streamlining it so its horror elements were more up front for American audiences (as opposed to asian horror movies' dedication to letting the horror creep just out of frame or focus and closing in on you from the peripheral, subconscious before it's too late.)

Janghwa, Hongryeon is a triumph of sorts and is criminally underseen. Do yourself a favor and track down a copy.




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