There’s no denying fairy tales are creepy. I remember not being able to look at the cover of the Ladybird-version Rumpelstilskin as a child, as it evoked my terror. The genre of K-horror has adopted the fairy tale theme, to disturbing and unnerving and effect.
Korea has some beloved children’s stories of its own, and I came across some of these whilst teaching English to young Korean children. Kon-gy and Pot-gy bears similarities to our Cinderella; Janghwa, Hongryeon follows two sisters, and reminds me of Snow White and Rose Red; and Hungbu and Nolbu is a tale of two brothers telling the importance of kindness and featuring a talking bird. These will surely have influenced K-horror film-makers (the names of the characters in A Tales of two Sisters (Jae-Woon Kim, 2003), for example, correlate to Janghwa, Hongryeon), however it is the Western fairytale motif that is prevalent.
On the most obvious level, K-horror has embraced this by bringing titles like Cinderella (Man-dae Bong, 2006), Hansel and Gretel (Pil-Sung Yim, 2007) and The Red Shoes (Yong-gyun Kim, 2005) back into mainstream popular culture, in a very different way. The genre has cleverly achieved a new way to freak out adults by recycling and subverting the stories, characters and images that may well have struck a similar fear in them during childhood.
One of the most striking aspects of Korean horror movies is their stylised aesthetic. ‘The House of Happy Children’ in Hansel and Gretel is a huge, Western-style home, filled with dolls, teddies and clowns. Set designer Ryu Seong-hee has said that she wanted to make the set seem good enough to eat. Rather like a fairy story, at face value, there is nothing scary here; no ghosts, ghouls or monsters but colours, cakes and toys- images of ‘happiness’. Yet this discomforts us. In terms of being good enough to eat, we start to feel sick from too much sugar. We sense that there is something more sinister beneath the surface, and this plays to our anticipation and imagination, with lasting psychological effect.
In A Tale of Two Sisters and The Red Shoes, red and white contrasts create fairy tale-esque visual landscapes. These are beautiful to look at, but again, with darker subtext. Blood on white material, like in Snow White is a memorable and ominous image. The visual sumptuousness of a pair of red shoes leads to experiences far removed from Dorothy’s.
Fairy stories are moralistic. There are goodies, baddies and a clear line between right and wrong. As we know from Wes Craven’s ‘rules of horror movies’ in Scream (1996), horror films follow the same pattern. In mainstream Western horror, if someone does something wrong, they will get their comeuppance. Korean films do not accept this so simply, but explore the idea further by looking closer at guilt, revenge, and conflict of conscience.
Dysfunctional family is a subject that plays a huge role, reflecting the emphasis Korean society puts on good, close, stable family life. Comedy-horror The Quiet Family (Jae-Woon Kim, 1998) turns this on its head by showing how a close-knit, functioning family can easily become guiltless mass-murderers. A Tale of Two Sisters uses the well-known character of the evil step mother to play on our expectations. Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel explore orphaned children, currently a popular subject throughout horror, another example being Spanish The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007).
Although not considered K-horror, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy here. All three films revolve around the ‘family’ theme to play on our sympathy and empathy, forcing us to consider difficult questions of morals. What if you had no choice but to do something considered ‘bad’? What if you were really the ‘goodie’ but someone else decided you were the ‘baddie’? What if you did something terrible without realising what you were doing at the time?
When children are put into the mix, this becomes even more complicated. We think of children as innocent and harmless, hence with no need for a complex moral compass. Perhaps this is why when it is a child that causes chaos, the horror is magnified. Unlike in J-horror where children appear as visual scare triggers (the child ghost motif, as famously seen in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, 1998), K-horror places children as protagonists, just like in children’s story books. This allows us to experience their fear, desperation and turmoil, and to feel just as lost as them.
The fairy tale aspects of K-horror add intelligence, style and unease. The success of the horror they evoke has brought them a vast and loyal fan-base, the fairy story associations ensuring universality of their appeal.
Now there is Hollywood interest, with rumours of nearly every K-horror to undergo a US remake (this could be considered as somewhat ironic: subversions of Western tales being sold back to the West!) In my opinion, The Univited (USA remake of Tale of Two Sisters, Charles Guard, 2009) was a huge disappointment, and did no justice to Jae-Woon Kim’s version. Despite this, it is argued that it has introduced a wider audience to the original, and so to K-horror at large, which I agree cannot be a bad thing.
I feel that it is the nuances of Korean societal influence and the subtleties and ambiguities of Korean style though, that have allowed these films to become fairy tales in their own right. No matter how scary they may be, they continue to enchant and inspire me just as much as tales of magical elves always will.
- A Tale of Two Sisters: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0365376/
- Cinderella: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0845442/
- The Red Shoes: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468683/
- Hansel and Gretel: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1002567/