July 31, 2007
Janghwa, Hongryeon (2003)
In 1999, South Korea's renovated film industry got its first major success with "Swiri", a powerful action movie directed by Je-Gyu Kang which became South Korea's most successful movie in that year and brought worldwide attention to the country's new wave of cinema. Through the following decade, South Korean cinema has grown stronger, in an apparent renaissance that has resulted in a wide variety of high quality movies that show the enormous talent of Korean filmmakers. During this resurgence, Korean horror has also experienced an amazing development, as after being greatly influenced by the successful Japanese horror of the late 90s, it has given the Japanese style of horror stories a noticeable Korean touch, evolving into a style of its own, filled with its own themes and ideologies. Ji-Woon Kim's movie "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is a prime example of this, and a film that joins "Swiri" and "Oldboy" as masterpieces of South Korea's cinema.
Known in English as "A Tale of Two Sisters" (although it literally means "Rose Flower, Red Lotus"), "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is the story of Soo-mi (Su-Jeong Lim) and Soo-Yeon (Geun-yeong Mun), two sisters who travel to their family's country house along their father Bae Moo-Hyeon (Kap-Su Kim) after having spent time in a mental institution after their mother's death. At home, they meet their father's young new wife, Eun-Joo (Jung-ah Yum), but while she tries to act friendly and helpful to the girls, it is clear that she feels a lot of resentment towards them and starts to abuse of Soo-Yeon both physically and psychologically, taking advantage of her shyness and weakness. This only increases Soo-mi's hate towards her stepmother, and decides to fight back and protect Soo-Yeon; however, there is something else in the house that haunts Soo-mi's dreams.
Written by director Ji-Woon Kim himself, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is loosely based on a famous Korean folktale of the same name that also deals with the difficult relationship between two sisters and their stepmother. However, this is not a direct adaptation, as Ji-Woon Kim has only used it as a basis to create a powerful character study that mixes horror, suspense and psychological drama in a cleverly devised plot that certainly offers more than the usual horror film. By focusing on Soo-mi's complex relationships with her family, Ji-Woon Kim explores themes of resentment, angst, guilt and loyalty with an eerie subtlety and great skill. Ji-Woon Kim's detailed development of his characters is also another of the story's strongest points, as it not only makes them truly believable, but also enhances the tense atmosphere between them, and the horrors that result from it.
Using an elegant and classy Gothic style adapted to its modern setting, Ji-Woon Kim makes his story come to life in a wonderful fashion, giving it a haunting ominous atmosphere that often seems to mimic the tense relations between the members of the Bae family. While the influence from Japanes horror seems obvious a couple of times, in "Janghwa, Hongryeon" the director takes the psychological aspects of the J-Horror style one step beyond and delivers a subtly ambiguous tale of horror, closer in spirit to Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" than to Hideo Nakata's "Ringu", as Ji-Woon Kim bases his movie more around the interactions between the characters than around the supernatural events that take place in the house. Considering this last element, Kim's directing of his cast becomes essential for the film's success and, being a former theater director, he doesn't disappoint.
While Ji-Woon Kim is famous for his stylish visual design, in "Janghwa, Hongryeon" he also displays his talent to direct actors, as he manages to get amazing performances from everyone in the cast. As Soo-mi, Su-Jeong Lim is pretty good, very natural as the strongest of the Bae sisters, completely determined to protect her sister. As Soo-Yeon, the weakest of the two, Geun-Yeong Mun delivers an impressive performance conveying a powerful image of fragility and shyness that contrasts perfectly with Soo-mi's more rebel nature. However, and while Mun's performance is certainly amazing, the highlight of the film is definitely Jung-ah Yum, who plays the sisters' cruel stepmother Eun-Joo. Yum is simply mesmerizing, and gives her apparently simple character a whole new dimension. While his role is considerably smaller, Kap-Su Kim delivers a subtle yet very good performance as the sisters' father.
A remarkably well constructed story of suspense, horror and psychological drama, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is one of the best movies that has came out of the New Wave of Korean cinema. However, while essentially build around a ghost story, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" offers a higher complexity in its construction that may come as too difficult to get at first, as Ji-Woon Kim crafts his movie as a demanding puzzle without many clues for its solution. This is not exactly a bad thing, as challenging movies often result in great rewarding experiences, however, those expecting a more typical tale of Asian ghosts may find the movie a bit too complex for its own sake. Despite that, "Janghwa, Hongryeon" is a beautifully crafted movie that offers an interesting character study spiced up by a haunting atmosphere of dread that will definitely please fans of Gothic horror.
Those expecting another typical clone of J-Horror will be pleasantly surprised by "Janghwa, Hongryeon", as it truly adds a whole new dimension to the style of horror that the Japanese filmmakers devised in the late 90s. In fact, it could be said that modern Korean horror is a direct evolution of the Japanese style of horror. After decades of censorship, financial troubles and low production, cinema of South Korea is entering a new "Golden Age", and Ji-Woon Kim's "Janghwa, Hongryeon" proves that the horror genre plays an important role in that.
Buy "Janghwa, Hongryeon" (2003)