Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Janghwa Hongryeon Eon: A Korean Folktale's Legacy In Film

~article by Marie Robinson

Greetings, ghouls! The main reason I am studying to become a folklorist is because I am a storyteller, and folklore is the stories of our ancestors. My goal is to keep the stories going and not let them die out, because I think it is important to remember our roots.

Thankfully, some tales still get the recognition they deserve, even if that means a retelling. I am a big fan of reinventing old myths and folktales; I do it frequently in my own writing. The story I am talking about today, however, originated from Korea. It’s called “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon”, which translates into “The Story of Janhgwa and Hongryeon”.

The jist of it is that a man named Bae fathered two girls, Janghwa and Hongryeon. Their mother died and Bae remarried a cruel woman. The stepmother kept her hatred for the girls a secret until she had produced three sons, and then she began to abuse the two girls. Janghwa and Hongryeon were too afraid to tell their father of the unspeakable things the woman did to them. Jangwha drowned in a pond while fleeing from her stepmother—one of her sons pushed her into the water to her death. Shortly after Hongryeon joined her sister in death, her body was found floating in the same lake where Janghwa was killed. After the sister’s death, every new mayor who came to govern the town was found dead in their study the following day, until one brave man took the place of mayor. He was in his study when the flames of his candles were extinguished quite suddenly and the door flung open. The apparitions of two girls materialized in the doorway. The mayor demanded to know who they were, and weeping, the girls replied that they had killed the previous mayors only in hopes of someone discovering the truth about their stepmother. The stepmother and her eldest son (who murdered Janghwa) were sentenced to death., and the ghosts of the girls finally found rest.

This folktale has inspired a string of films throughout the years. The first one was a silent film, released in Korea in 1924, simply titled Janghwa Hongryeon jeon (directed by Hyeong-hwang Kim). Two films followed with the same title in 1936 (directed by Hong Gae-myeong), and 1956 (directed by Jeong Chang-hwa). For some reason Jeon Chang-hwa did another rendition of the tale in 1962, this one entitled Dae Jang-hwa Hong-ryeon jeon. 1972 gave us the last Janghwa Hongryeon jeon of the 20th century. All of these films stay pretty close to the folktale’s storyline and character names, and all of them came out relatively close to each other! To be fair, look how many adaptations of Snow White the United States has come out with just this year.

Now… I haven’t seen any of the films previously discussed, but I am quite confident that the 2003 retelling of the fable is the best. It is called A Tale of Two Sisters and it is written and directed by Jee-woon Kim, who also gave us the highly praised 2010 film I Saw the Devil. While A Tale of Two Sisters is modernized and abstract, it does not lose the story that inspired it.

It is the story of the Bae family (a nod to the father’s name in the folktale), more specifically, sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon. Su-mi has just returned to her home from a visit to the mental hospital, where she was coping with the death of her mother. She keeps her shy and silent sister forever at her side and stands up for her in the face of their unpleasant stepmother, who Su-mi affectionately calls, “that woman”. As things at their house become stranger and stranger, and their father grows ever distant, the two girls are on their own in the face of ghosts, tragedy, and womanhood.

This film is a meticulously crafted classic and a masterpiece in horror cinema that takes a new spin on the folktale while still keeping it at its core. Its beautiful and sparse use of music and sound effects allows the drama to break your heart and the suspense to hold you in a terrifying grip. A Tale of Two Sisters is atmospheric and stylish; little light penetrates the shadows within the film’s house. It is a place built with mystery and madness in its frame, and the walls are closing in. The characters are strongly defined, from our protagonist Su-mi, who is struggling with sanity and strength, to the mutely troubled father. The film envelops you with its poetic and complex storyline, where the camera itself is used as a brilliant tool. Korea has proved itself to be a country that knows what is scary, and this film—unclassifiable and unique in its own genre—is no exception.

A final adaptation was made from the myth of the sisters Janghwa and Hungryeon…sadly. The Uninvited calls itself a remake of A Tale of Two Sisters, but this 2008 American film directed by the Guard Brothers is hardly worthy of that claim. Starring Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel as the sisters, David Strathairn as the father, and Elizabeth Banks (by the way, I hate her) as the evil stepmother, this movie takes shreds of the plot and some laughable replications of scenes from A Tale of Two Sisters and forgets all about the fable, proving it to be hollow and lacking all artistic and emotional qualities.

Well, Janghwa Hongryeon jeon had a good run, regardless. Hopefully it will live on through these films, and not be forgotten with time, for it is a beautiful and heartbreaking tale that has proven to be highly influential in its country of origin. You can keep this story alive by passing it on—be it at a campfire, a bedside, or just by tuning into one of these films!


Budd said...

I loved tale of two sisters. Great movie. Uninvited not so much.

Anonymous said...

Sam said...
I don't like scary movies so much. But, I enjoy the read on Marie's posts.

Marie said...

Awww, thanks Sam!!

Anonymous said...

I've seen all, like them all, and actually it was the publishing company that said it was a redo of The Tale Of Two Sisters while the director was very aware of it's roots. The Uninvited was a good American retelling, its closer to what people can go through.

Unknown said...

who is the author of the story Janghwa Hongryeon jeon?? because some pages says that the author is unknown