Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Tale of Two Sisters

I'm going to stick my neck out and call this sumptuous Korean chiller a masterpiece.

However, as with the equally singular Last Life in the Universe I wouldn't be that surprised if the rank and file of the un-beguiled line up against me on this. They'll point out how self-consciously beautiful it is, how it's more tasty than it is nutritious, and so on.

Ok, the production values are a bit Merchant Ivoryu, but there are other comparisons with Last Life in the Universe which suggest why the beauty of Janghwa, Hongryeon is more than skin deep.

It's clear that both directors set about their task with the knowledge that their chosen plotlines involved both serious ambiguities and major technical hurdles and that success would depend on translating their own active curiosity about these into compelling cinematic drama. And Ji-Woon Kim's paricular achievement here is the way he has addressed one of the major challenges of the psychological horror genre in a genuinely novel way.

Earlier in the year when I reviewed Taichi Yamada's Strangers , I went on about the ways that tales of the supernatural tackle the thorny issue of underlying explanation - first how to camouflage it, then whether and how to reveal it.

In The Shining for instance, Kubrick got away with blending subjective and objective perception, natural and supernatural horror and then closed out without really providing a proper solution. (He even tossed in another curveball just before the end credits!)

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is another riddle which cleverly never fully commits to one level of interpretation.

Another increasingly frequent technique is the fish in the face twist at the end. M. Night Shyamalan delivered this slap better than any with Sixth Sense, but Almenabar's The Others has a good swing at it too. Even if you don't believe in spooks, being the victim of a grand artistic deception can be highly entertaining.

Asian horror narratives have generally been less skillfull. Ju-On: The Grudge, Ringu and Dark Water both suffer from silly premise syndrome.

Ji-Woon Kim however, has managed to have his cake and eat it in the Jamesean manner, yet has opted for an intriguingly riskier route. He delivers a controlled twist about two thirds of the way in, after which we have to quickly adapt our map of the story and the characters to accommodate the fact that most of what we have so far seen has been a projection from a very troubled mind.

The first major film to show as live action events remembered subjectively was Kurosawa's Rashômon. It's a technique that can lead to audiences feeling seriously swizzed as in Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003). But Ji-Woon Kim began his film showing us Soo-mi in an asylum responding to a doctor's request to remember, so the sense of having been conned is thus more contained.

Janghwa, Hongryeon is based on an old Korean fairy tale that has been adapted for cinema several times. The title means Rose Flower, Red Lotus, as do the names of the sisters Soo-mi and Soo-yeon in the film. I'd love whether the partial reveal achieved here by Kim was part of the original story. I suspect it wasn't. A horror story with two distinct and yet carefully entwined sets of premises, subjective and objective, seems like a strikingly original treatment. Once we know that much of the deeply scary stuff we have seen has crept out of Soo-mi's unconscious, we are granted a few moments of calm and comprehension before Kim begins to reveal to us glimpses of the real events and personalities that might have prompted those visceral imaginings.

The real 'evil stepmother' Eun-Joo arrives late in the action, but we soon understand that she is potentially as wicked as Soo-mi's alter ego. Moo-hyeon the father has been a shifty presence from the start, and Kim hints at something dark and incestuous in his backstory.

Overall, this two-tier structure allows the director to set up some major frights in the first section which can be explained away in the second - but only partially, we then come to realise. It's as if clouds have drifted in to obscure the sense of sudden clarification that we earlier experienced.

There are bound to be some people that find it hard to keep their heads above the water, especially when the flow suddenly switches direction. But I was left with the conviction that from a storyteller's perspective the movie's structure is a stroke of genius. Kim appears to have found a unique way to divide his story's secrets into those that need to be outed and the ones that can remain chillingly un-revealed.

There are two and a half hours of extras on the Tartan DVD, including some intimate and penetrating cast interviews conducted by the director with a camcorder which are practically mini-works of art in themselves.

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