Seen in Jeonju

The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon (1972)

14th July 2010

story of janghwa hongryeonI received an order of DVDs yesterday that consisted entirely of the recently released movies of the 60s and 70s that I posted about here. The student in my house, probably tired of preparing for a graduate class, suggested we watch one. I let him pick and he chose Janghwa and Hongryeon.  That probably would not have been my first choice.  Don’t get me wrong, horror is one of my favorite genres, but this film is directed by Lee Yu-seob. In my opinion, he is not one of the better directors of the period. I had previously seen My Sister’s Regrets (1971), a ghost story like this one,  and Sister (1973) one of the worst of the 70s films I have seen. It was overwrought melodrama that constantly strove the make the viewer cry and constantly failed because all the characters were so bland I couldn’t care what happened to them. I think the running time of Sister was something like 70 minutes but it felt like the movie would never end.  Fortunately, Lee does a little bit better with The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon…but there was a lot of room for improvement.

The story is a classic Korean tale that takes place sometime in the Joseon period and the movie more or less the traditional plot.  Janghwa and Hongryeon are sisters.  Their mother had passed away and their father had remarried Mrs. Heo.  Heo is only interested in her new, wealthy husband’s riches which she wants for herself and her son, Jang-swe whose is mentally challenged and easily controlled by his scheming mother. Heo’s first step towards securing the potential inheritance for her son is to turn the girl’s father against Janghwa, the family favorite. To this end, she has Jang-swe catch and skin a rat and leave it in Janghwa’s bed in the middle of the night. She then awakens her husband on the pretense of hearing a man in the girls’ shared room and then convinces him that the bloody remains of the rat actually belong to an aborted child.  Janghwa’s father is furious that his daughter is not chaste and throws her out of the house. Jang-swe leads her away on horseback to a cliff and then informs Janghwa that he is under orders to kill her. Although he is brandishing a dagger, it seems unlikely he could actually carry out his mother’s plan, but Janghwa, shamed beyond bearing, opts to jump from the cliff on her own accord. A ghost is seen around the village and Heo convinces the family with the help of a dishonest mystic that it is attached to Hongryeon. The young girl is tortured under the guise of exorcism and she is drive mad. Searching for her sister, Hongryeong wanders into the pool at the base of a waterfall and drowns. It would seem that Heo has won except the ghosts of the girls appear to their father and a local magistrate and haunt them until Heo is brought to justice.

janghwa hongryeon 1936One of the things I wished Lee had spent a little more time with is how the ghosts of the title characters were depicted. Whenever they appeared, Lee used a red filter over them and lots of dry ice smog. Except for the fact that their hair was down and they were dressed in white, they looked like two normal women. Even the poster above makes them appear most ghost-like than they ever appear in the movie. That would be fine except that these apparitions were supposed to be so scary that several people die of terror just by looking at them. Now compare that with the 1936 ghost of Janghwa pictured right. The makeup looks pretty good– unfortunately the movie is lost at the moment– so I can’t compare the movies.  Korean  films from the 30s keep slowly turning up so maybe we can see this one day…

A little more effort should have been put into the tiger as well.  This movie takes the same approach to the tiger that Ggotne did. Instead of spending money on a tiger costume or a trained animal, the director opted for a poorly and posed tiger carcass–and not a very large one at that. Some stagehand off camera is holding the tiger’s hindquarters and jiggling the animal around trying to make it look alive.  Since it is posed in one position with glass eyes open and mouth agape–this does not work. It did make me laugh and it made me think, as bad as it was, this tiger was better than the horrible CG tigers in the recent KBS2 version of Gumiho. Trust me–they were bad and their overuse made me turn it off less than halfway the program through never to see the end.

I don’t usually write about the end of a film but in this case I have to.  And since the movie is 30+ years old, I think it will be ok. Plus, it is not exactly the end I want to discuss–it is the supposed end.  The Korean Film Archives (KOFA) gives a plot synopsis that states, at the end of the movie, Janghwa suddenly returns to life after justice is servied and marries the magistrate.  This does not happen.  No one returns from the dead in this movie…although..there is a spot where the bodies are discovered that I had an idea that she was suddenly going start breathing.  I think it might have been in writer Lee Hee-woo’s original script for the movie but someone realized how ridiculous that would have been. The final scene takes place at the shrine for the sisters shows the final fate of their father and step-brother who were not present when the magistrate’s men came to arrest the guilty parties.

It is a shame that the DVD does not have English subtitles which would have introduced the story to a wider audience. Maybe it is not the best of the 70s, and it is much more of a drama than a horror film, but it is the best offering from Lee Yu-seob that I have seen so far and I did enjoy watching the movie in spite of  its faults.

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