~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.
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.
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
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
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!