A Tale of Two Sisters

South Korean Horror: An Autoethnographic Perspective (Part 2)

In the first part of my autoethnographic research series into South Korean horror, I described my experience of watching the South Korean psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters. This post, the second part of the series, will provide some background information on the text and will be analysing my experience of watching the film.

a-tale-of-two-sisters

When conducting some background research into the film, after watching it, I discovered that the film is loose interpretation of a well-known Korean folktale called “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” (The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon). In fact, there were already five adaptations of the tale prior to the 2003 version, and that’s excluding the 2009 Hollywood remake “The Uninvited”.

The folk-tale originates from the Joseon-era of Korean history and tells the story of two girls Janghwa and Hongryeon who, after being abused by their wicked step-mother, both perish at the hands of the step-mother and her eldest son. The sisters, as ghostly apparitions, then go on to kill every new mayor of the town, in the hope that someone would eventually discover their step-mother’s true nature. Eventually, thanks to one brave mayor, the sisters’ get their wish and the step-mother and her son are executed. As a result, this puts the sisters’ souls to rest and ends the haunting. The tale is much more complex, of course, but this is the general jist. With this in mind, I wonder how my experience of watching the film would changed, had I known about its source material prior to watching it. 

The aspect that stands out most to me in both the folk-tale and the film, but particularly in the film, is the representation of family. The film is essentially a horror film about domestic life and represents possible fears of a non-nuclear family.  The role that the father plays, in the film, is particularly interesting as he appears to completely passive and non-fussed about the whole situation and seems to be almost isolated from the rest of the family. This interestingly plays against the male-centric Confucian system, where fathers are generally seen as the head of the household and should be respected by every family member. Yet, in the film, it always seems like the step-mother is undermining his authority and that he has very little control over anything.

This experience in autoethnographic research has been much more enlightening than I had anticipated and has proved to be a good stepping stone for my major individual research, which will see me explore something that’s entirely unfamiliar to me: anime. I hope you have enjoyed these last two posts as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

South Korean Horror- An Autoethnographic perspective (Part One)

If you read my last blog post about autoethnography, you’ll be aware that I had the intention of using J-Horror as the topic for my autoethnographic research. However, as I was browsing the research done by previous Digital Asia students, I noticed that J-Horror had been covered extensively, which led me to consider other possible topics. Although I have been exposed to South Korean horror,  through films such as the excellent Train to Busan (dir. Sang-ho Yeun, 2016) and The Wailing (dir. Hong-jin Na, 2016), I am much less knowledgable on South Korean horror than I am on J-Horror, which therefore influenced me into changing research topics. So, in forming this autoethnographic research, I decided to watch the psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (dir. Jee-woon Kim, 2003). My autoethnographic response to the film will be split in two parts:

This week’s post will describe, in detail, my personal experience when watching the film. Next week’s post will be an analysis of my experience and provide some background information on the film. 

How I felt watching the film:

Although I did eventually manage to actually settle properly and concentrate on the film, I initially spent a large amount of time playing ‘Football Manager’ on my phone and pausing the film every 5 minutes for various reasons (mostly internet surfing). Furthermore, since I was watching the film through SBS On Demand, I had to deal with several ad breaks, which managed to break the flow of the film (although I will concede that since the streaming service is free, advertising is necessary for it to keep running).

The first thing to say about my experience watching this film is that I found it to be incredibly scary, both viscerally and psychologically. In fact, there were a few times where I had to distract myself with games on my phone, just to help cope with the film’s intensity.

A Tale of Two Sisters

In terms of the visceral horror, which has more to do with the technical aspects, I found the sound design to be particularly frightening. The creaking of the wooden doors and the scratching of the walls proved to be incredibly effective in drawing a physical reaction from me. I’ll admit, I jumped a few times, and while I usually hate that tactic, the film used it in a clever and restrained way. The techniques used reminded me enormously of those used in J-Horror films such as Ringu (1998), which deal much more with supernatural horror, as opposed to the psychological.

a-tale-of-two-sisters

The psychological aspect of the film, however, was far scarier and dealt with ideas that aren’t often addressed in Western cinema. The main aspect, which I refer to, is the fear of non-nuclear family. A large part of the plot revolves around the two titular sisters’ deeply unstable relationship with their step-mother. I cannot recall the last time I saw a film which explored non-nuclear family life in such a manner. Personally, I found myself relating with the two sisters, as the step-mother was indeed terrifying. Every look that the step-mother gave, particularly to the sisters, was sinister and nothing she did indicated a genuine attempt to form a bond with them. I often found myself shocked at the step-mother’s actions and even more so at the father’s reluctance to react on said actions. It’s only in the film’s final revelations, that I then understood the what I had seen (more on that next week). However, I was undeniably shaken by the film’s unique exploration of family relationships through a horror-sensibility.