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A Tale of Two Sisters (dir. Ji-woon Kim, Korea, 2003).

Courtesy Festive Films Pte Ltd, Singapore

Mothers and Daughters:

Abjection and the
Monstrous-Feminine in Japans
Dark Water and South Koreas
A Tale of Two Sisters
K K Seet

Contemporary criticism on filmic representations of women is as

fractured and as lacking in unanimity as is the focus of its undertaking. Since Laura Mulveys influential essay on the male gaze,
critics have been divided in their take on recent cinematic strategies for portraying gender difference, with some noting a positive,
recuperative agenda, whether in terms of feminist specular resistance or of the return of the repressed with a vengeance, while
others have continued to see the same sadistic voyeurism targeting women still denied subjective agency but increasingly depicted
in diverse ways as the monstrous-feminine. In The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, an anthology that endeavors to
locate gender issues within the specifics of the horror genre, contributors span the entire spectrum, from those who see the horror
genre as ultimately conservative to those who choose to read it
Camera Obscura 71, Volume 24, Number 2
doi 10.1215/02705346-2009-005 2009 by Camera Obscura
Published by Duke University Press


140 Camera Obscura

against the grain of womens oppression.1 Some see resistance in

the form of hesitancy, rather than opposition, while others detect
elements of tension that serve to illustrate contradictory features paralleling Antonio Gramscis insights into hegemonic and
counter-hegemonic operations.2 This last assumes a concealing
device in the cinemas visual apparatus, in line with Metzs psychoanalytic definition of the operations of disavowal inherent in the
cinematic institution (165).

Trends in Horror Films:

The Emergence of the Asian Domestic Gothic

Recent explorations of the horror genre in Western cinema have

taken the form of transhistorical vehicles on an epic scale, like
Underworld (dir. Len Wiseman, US/Germany/Hungary/UK,
2003) and Van Helsing (dir. Stephen Sommers, US/Czech Republic, 2004). Even the recent remake of George Romeros Dawn of
the Dead (dir. Zack Snyder, US, 2004), notwithstanding its location in American suburbia, entails mass pandemonium as the
zombies stretch their reign of terror across towns and cities like
a contagious viral infection. Conversely, it is the rarely analyzed
Asian horror film that remains mired in the milieu of home and
hearth, evincing an increasing generic exchange between the
horror genre and the family melodrama and leading to a convergence or even conflation of the two into a new Asian variation of
the domestic gothic. Many theorists have seen this as the result of
social upheavals in the past few decades, which have engendered
new paradigms of family structure and new twists to configurations of the nuclear family in hitherto conservative Asia. Where
the horror and melodrama genres were once differentiated by
their primary modality, what Vivian Sobchack succinctly summarizes as those processes of condensation, displacement and secondary elaboration that metaphorically/metonymically constitute
narrative momentum and iconographic imagery, they increasingly intersect within the recent Asian horror film.3 Many examples of the latter have not only struck a chord with their regional
audiences but also carved inroads into Hollywood and Western

Mothers and Daughters 141

film consciousness by way of Hollywood remakes. Since the Naomi

Watts version of the Japanese box-office hit The Ring (dir. Hideo
Nakata, 1998) and its evocation of domestic horror through mundane household gadgets and items like an intriguing videotape, a
phone call that brings death to its recipient, and a demoness who
crawls out of the television set in ones living room, other Asian
horror films have been remade in the US. These include the SingaporeHong Kong coproduction The Eye (dir. Oxide Pang and
Danny Pang, 2002), remade in a production by Tom Cruise (dir.
David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2008); the Japanese films Ju-On
(dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2003), remade as The Grudge (dir. Takashi
Shimizu, Japan/US/Germany, 2004, starring Sarah Michelle
Gellar); and Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, dir. Hideo
Nakata, Japan, 2002), remade as Dark Water (dir. Walter Salles,
2005, featuring Jennifer Connelly); as well as the Korean psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (dir. Ji-woon Kim, 2003),
the remake rights to which were bought by Dreamworks for one
million dollars. As does The Ring, these four films also intrude into
the domestic landscape, invoking fear through the familiar and
the familial. This is reminiscent of the trend in 1970s and 1980s
Western horror, in films such as Carrie (dir. Brian DePalma, US,
1976), Audrey Rose (dir. Robert Wise, US, 1977), The Shining (dir.
Stanley Kubrick, UK/US, 1980), and Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper,
US, 1982), of testing and representing the limits of the family as it
has been constructed in patriarchal culture. According to Robin
Wood, as cited in Sobchack, the ideological and interpersonal
structure of the American bourgeois family is characterized by
cellular construction and institutionalization of capitalist and
patriarchal relations and values such as monogamy, heterosexuality and consumerism (144). Since the 1960s, however, American bourgeois patriarchy has suffered decline and disintegration,
resulting in a state of crisis and disequilibrium. In an age in which
the concept of a mans home as his castle has become obsolete as
a result of the intrusive prevalence of everything from broadcast
media and the Internet to the ubiquitous presence of the cellular
phone, the invasion of alien others into ones home has become
the essential corollary to the idea of the drawbridge to ones for-

142 Camera Obscura

tress being down at all times. Likewise, according to Sobchack,

the social world can no longer be demarcated along such artificial
bifurcations as private home and public space, or the bourgeois
distinctions between the personal microcosm and the sociopolitical macrocosm (14546).
The family, exposed as a cultural construct or a set of signifying practices, becomes subject to semiotic processes of selection and combination and open to dissolution or redefinition. It
is within this scenario that the Other, as both same and different,
gets implicated in family life. Since the dominant strategy in the
horror film is the repression of an excessive will to power, the 1980s
version manifests the challenge to and the response of a patriarchy
denied its economic and political sovereignty (15354). As patriarchy is threatened, the children assume the guise of changelings
who exercise a deconstructive force on patriarchal culture as in
Audrey Rose, or fathers function as the synchronic repressed who
return to terrorize the household as in The Shining (150).4 It is
evident, therefore, that the 1980s horror film is conditioned by
the conservative values of the Reagan era, where the family unit
as authoritarian patriarchal structure seeks to produce gendered
products within a capitalist society. Despite Carol Clovers reading
of sexual ambivalence and subtle tendencies of resistance, found,
for example, in the figure of the Final Girl who survives the serial
killer, or in the films whose unseen assailants turn out to be female
rather than male, the thrust of these 1980s horror films is still
inherently reinscriptive of the status quo.5 Consequently, the Oedipally defined law of the father still aims at narrative containment
by preventing the emergence of alternative personal structures and
repressing its subjects into conformist positionsin other words,
by advancing an emphatic need for society to be recuperated into
the male order of things.
A similar dynamic can be observed in the current Asian
horror film. In many examples, the nuclear family is in a state of
transformation, or bourgeois values are being undermined or overturned. In The Ring, the female protagonist is a divorced parent
whose negligence causes her young son to watch the dangerous
videotape, thereby necessitating the investigative trip to uncover

Mothers and Daughters 143

the truth and stop the chain of horror from proliferating. In the
Korean horror blockbusters Hayanbang (White Room, dir. Changjae Lim, 2002) and Yeogo goedam 3: Yeowoo gyedan (Wishing Stairs,
dir. Jae-yeon Yun, 2003), unbridled sexual desire and promiscuity
within a family context propel a tragic sequence of events that leads
to vengeance being exacted on the culprits by supernatural forces.
Perhaps this contemporary Asian horror evinces the same male
anxieties exemplified in the Western horror films of the 1980s,
through what Kaja Silverman calls the dominant fiction or conventional Oedipal desires and positionalities that pathologically
affirm conservative family values and chastise those who flout or
disobey the norms.6 The rest of this essay will demonstrate that the
current Asian horror film is ultimately conservative and functions
as a form of narrative containment, the modern purification ritual
that emphasizes the need for recuperation into the male order
of things.

Mothers, Daughters, and the Monstrous-Feminine

The two films that I have singled out for discussion are Dark Water
(2002) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). Both have been phenomenally successful with national and international audiences and, as
mentioned earlier, have sold their remake rights to major Hollywood studios. Dark Water was the much-anticipated new work from
Hideo Nakata, the director of the groundbreaking Japanese horror film The Ring, who has collaborated yet again with the maestro
of Japanese horror fiction, Koji Suzuki. Apart from breaking boxoffice records in Japan, Dark Water garnered several international
film awards, including the Grand Prize and International Critics
Award at the 2002 Gerardner Film Festival, the Silver Raven at the
Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, and a Special Mention at the Catalonian International Film Festival in Sitges, Spain.
Likewise, A Tale of Two Sisters raked in $424,126 in its first weekend,
a figure equivalent to 500 million won, an unprecedented figure
by the Korean box office benchmark. The film subsequently won
best actress, best director, and best film accolades at the Fantasporto International Fantasy Films Festival, as well as netting both

144 Camera Obscura

the Grand Prize and Youth Jury Prize at the 2004 Gerardner Film
Festival. Interestingly, both films feature a male director even
though the protagonists are all female, and the films revolve
around mother-daughter relationships within a domestic context.
At a glance, one easily discerns that in both films similarly
dysfunctional domestic configurations testify to the nuclear family in a state of crisis. In A Tale of Two Sisters, a deconstruction of a
Korean folktale, the father (Kap-su Kim) is impotent to prevent the
internecine struggles between his current wife, Eun-joo (Jung-ah
Yum), and his two daughters, Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-yeon
(Geun-yeong Mun), as a result of the guilt that he feels. This film
is heavy with suggestions that his late wifes (Su-mis biological
mother) suicide was provoked in part by his suspected affair with
her personal nurse. In Dark Water, the father remains largely absent
and is accused by his estranged wife of being a negligent parent
who forgets his daughters birthday. Instead of the tight, cohesive
units typical of Asian households, the families are fractured, with
either deceased or helpless mothers and latchkey children who are
dispatched to day-care centers or boarding schools. Yoshimi (Hitomi Karuki), the mother in Dark Water, has previously suffered
psychiatric problems after taking an editorial job proofreading
extremely graphic and sadistic horror novels. In the film, she
is depicted as teetering on the edge of sanity, since she is increasingly incapable of coping with what is happening around her.
Mitsuko (Mirei Oguchi), the missing child in the film, has been
abandoned by her mother, mirroring a similar fate endured by
Yoshimi decades earlier. The deceased mother in A Tale of Two Sisters
was manic-depressive before taking her own life, while the stepmother is portrayed as duplicitous and conniving, and possibly in
an adulterous liaison with the young uncle. Su-mi in the same film
is alleged to have spent time in a sanatorium. The majority of the
female characters in both films are therefore suffering from primal
bereavement and abandonment fears and anxieties involving mothers who have forfeited their nurturing roles, by choice or design, as
primary caregivers. Because patriarchal authority and bourgeois
family values have been undermined or jettisoned in these films,

Mothers and Daughters 145

abjection as a source of horror and disruption threatens the symbolic order, generating chaos and catastrophe, mayhem, madness,
and murder.
Hence, the female characters in these two films are constructed less as spectacle objects or exhibition objects than as horror objects on account of their abject status. In her insightful analysis of the monstrous-feminine in the horror cinema, Barbara Creed
outlines the application of Julia Kristevas concept of abjection in
three ways: first, in explicit images of abjection like blood and
putrefying flesh; second, in the idea of a particular border being
breached, transgressed, or threatened as a result of an encounter
between the symbolic order and that which destabilizes it; third,
and perhaps most significant, in the construction of the maternal
figure as abject.7 All three devices figure in these two films, and
they are associated unequivocally with the female characters. A
semiotic analysis of the cinema posters establishes the use of these
devices from the outset. The poster for Dark Water shows the ghostly
figure of a child hovering behind a bedraggled little girl, almost
like a kind of photographic superimposition, visually capturing
what Kristeva calls the corpsethe most sickening of wastesas
a border that has encroached upon everything, the nonhuman
doppelgnger threatening the borders of the human.8 The Tale of
Two Sisters poster subverts the typical family portrait. The family
is positioned as in a studio portrait, but the two girls wear bloodsplattered dresses, and ones head lolls at an angle that suggests
she is dead. The stepmother has her hands on the shoulders of
one girl, whereas the father is touching neither daughter. Rather,
he holds his head slightly averted in an aloof manner, underscoring his detachment from the abjection entwining stepmother and
daughters. The film itself also contains several scenes in which a
body in a sack (supposedly that of one of the daughters) is repeatedly bludgeoned and then dragged about, trailing pools of blood
in its wake, and Su-yeon, the younger sister, has recurrent visions
of her mother hanging in the closet.
In terms of borders and parameters being transgressed, the
films play on the fine line between sanity and madness, with the

146 Camera Obscura

women in perpetual frenzy, juxtaposed to the clarity and control of

the male characters. In Dark Water, the realm of the mother is the
realm of the repressed, which the grown-up Ikuko (Asami Mizukawa), Yoshimis daughter, revisits during a school trip. The dreary
apartment building stands in stark relief to the bright kindergarten, which works as a symbol of the realm of language and socially
signifying practices. It is therefore significant that the ghost-child
jettisons her schoolbag, emblematic of schooling and socialization
into the law of the father, when she craves reunion with Yoshimi
as her surrogate mother. It is also revealing that Yoshimi spells out
her identity as inseparable from Ikuko, suggesting Kristevas phase
of maternal authority where mother and child exist as one entity
within the semiotic chora, where divisions are essentially fluid and
the child is still not a fully constituted subject. A Tale of Two Sisters
hints at the Electra complex as exemplifying twisted sexual desire
when Su-mi squabbles with her stepmother over who should prepare the undergarments for the father.
However, as the motherdaughter nexus is pivotal in these
two films, the construction of the maternal figure as abject assumes
particular dominance. In Kristevas formulation, the mother becomes abject the moment she is rejected by the child in favor of the
father who represents the symbolic order, the realm of language
and meaningful communication. As the child struggles to become
a separate identity, maternal abjection becomes a precondition
of narcissism (13). But the mother is also abject because the two
categories of polluting objects defined by Kristeva are associated
with her: both the excremental, which threatens identity from
outside, and menstrual, which threatens from within (71). While
the element of the menstrual has direct affiliation to the mother
figure, the excremental is connected with the mother by virtue of
her role in sphincteral training, from which the child learns the
primal mapping of the body, distinguishing the clean and proper
from the unclean and improper areas of the body (72). The excremental is also linked to decay, infection, disease, and corpses. In
A Tale of Two Sisters, the apparition of the corpse that Su-mi espies
coincides with menstruation, thereby linking the menstrual with
the excremental in this scenario. Not only does she see menstrual

Mothers and Daughters 147

blood flowing down the thighs of the specter but she is also subsequently seen asking her stepmother for tampons.
Although the abject has to be excluded in ensuring that the
subject takes up his or her proper place in relation to the symbolic,
it must still be tolerated because that which threatens life also ironically serves to define it. Kristeva sees the presemiotic realm of the
mother as continuing to exist in tandem with the symbolic order
of the father, in a dyadic relationship of simultaneous fascination
and repulsion. For even as the child struggles for self-constitution,
he or she is partly terrified of separating from his or her mother
and partly consumed by a desire to remain locked in an engulfing embrace with the maternal figure. Generally, the relationship
between mother and child is marked by conflict because the child
ultimately wants to break free, while the mother yearns to exert her
hold. These two films provide an alternative perspective in suggesting that the female child, long after its thetic break and acquisition of language, continues to seek the primacy of the mother and
her realm of plenitude.9
Such a longing to return to the mother is central to both
Dark Water and A Tale of Two Sisters. In Dark Water, the teenaged
Ikuko, now living with her father and aptly clad in a school uniform
to denote her socialization into the phallogocentric order, begs
to live with her mother and betrays a nostalgic longing for the
dreary building that signifies the latters abject world. In A Tale of
Two Sisters the bulk of the dramatic action unfolds in the deepest
recesses of Su-mis fecund mind, since she attempts to deal with
the death of her biological mother and sister through a repeated
reenvisioning of possible scenarios, where she alternately assumes
the roles of aggressor and victim. Su-mi seems unable to forge
an identity apart from her mother and sister. Dark Water subverts
both Lacans mirror-stage and Kristevas reconceptualization of it
by setting many scenes in the bathroom, including an extremely
crucial one in which the young Ikuko (Rio Kanno) gazes into the
bathwater in a mock narcissistic trance. Lacan considers the child
as developing the primordial notion of being an I when it identifies with the fictive unity it sees in the mirror. Kristeva departs from
Lacan in construing the mother as abject after the child acquires

148 Camera Obscura

sphincteral training and learns to map its clean and proper body.
Hence the reduction of an archaic parthenogenic mother like the
North American mythic Spider Woman to the Egyptian Sphinx
(from the back-formation sphingein, the same etymological root
as sphincter) of the Oedipus myth who loses her ground once her
riddle is solved.10 That the daughters seek to wallow in abjection
even after the alleged thetic breaks theorized by both Lacan and
Kristeva is rendered emphatic by these bathroom scenes.

Addressing the Lack in Kristevas Theory of Abjection

Here is perhaps where the two films chart new ground and
address a discernable lack in Kristevas theory of abjection. When
Kristeva discusses the constitution of the subject, she pays insufficient attention to its gender, even though that is clearly of utmost
importance. The female childs experience of the chora, of the
mother as site and receptacle, is necessarily different from that of
a male child, who may find it less difficult to reject it for paternal
authority. Moreover, as the mother is already configured as a gendered subject within the patriarchal order, she will relate to her
sons and daughters in a different manner, perhaps to the one with
greater pride and pleasure, and to the other with closer affinity.
Hence the cinematic representation of the respective daughters
seeking abjection in the maternal figure serves as a useful hypothesis for the explication of patriarchal culture and its dependence
on the abjection of women, from whichever angle.
The association of maternity with the abject is also reinforced by the imagery of parturition in Dark Water and A Tale of
Two Sisters. Freud has suggested that the earliest attachment to the
mother is deeply repressed. In Totem and Taboo, he proposes
that human society develops through three stages from patriarchy
to matriarchy to patriarchy again. This last phase incorporates the
two fundamental taboos of totemismincest and murderinto
the reestablishment of the patriarchal order.11 Within this last
phase, the mother figure exists in a dyadic or triadic relationship,
either as the protective but suffocating mother of the pre-Oedipal
or as the object of sexual jealousy in the Oedipal configuration.

Mothers and Daughters 149

The archaic parthenogenic mother is intrinsic to the generative

principle and stands in contrast to the mother of the Lacanian
imaginary, or even to the one of Kristevas semiotic chora, which
is in fact the pre-Oedipal mother functioning in relation to the
symbolic order. This archaic, parthenogenic mother, befitting her
status, is associated with representations of birth and the primal
scene. Unfortunately, however, even this archaic mother is associated with the monstrous-feminine in these two films.
In A Tale of Two Sisters, a reworking of the primal scene occurs
when Su-mi witnesses the ghoul appearing before her splayed legs
as she lies in bed. Her childless stepmother, Eun-joo, on the other
hand, is traumatized during the dinner scene by a mutilated girl
crouched in a fetal position under the kitchen sink, which is reminiscent of the mutant in Its Alive (dir. Larry Cohen, US, 1974). In
Dark Water, metaphors of the womb abound. Apart from the building with its dark, dank corridors, both the water tank, where the
deceased little girl (Mitsuko) drowned, and the lift cage, in which
Yoshimi first encounters Mitsuko as a ghost-child, carry connotations of the womb: the first by reference to the amniotic fluid and
the second in terms of the climactic scene in which the force of
water literally flushes Ikuko out in a gesture reminiscent of the
primal scene, when the bursting water sac accompanies the birth
pang and announces the onset of delivery. Here, the elevator shaft
serves as a metaphor of the uterus. Even the opening credits of the
film, with their deliberately distorted mid-range shots of a yellow
raincoat swirling in the water tank, suggest the fuzzy images of a
fetus in an ultrasound scan. These images of parturition reinforce
the conventional assignation of what Adrienne Rich calls malign
occult influences . . . vulnerable to or emanating evil to the phenomenon of female reproduction.12 Just as parturition is construed
as a ritual state necessitating the intervention of priests, shamans,
and the like because the mother is necessarily impure as a result of
the blood that goes along with it, the earlier state of pregnancy
is often likened to possession, which, as Sheila Kitzringer points
out, is when the body is taken over by an unknown or even hostile stranger.13 In the film, this possession assumes the guise of a

150 Camera Obscura

Since the female as abject is underlined in these films, the

implied male gaze does not take the form of fetishistic aestheticization, which according to Mulvey facilitates visual pleasure by
investing women in narrative cinema with an excess of perfection,
thereby mastering the threat of castration.14 In these films, the
male viewer is still equipped with the requisite specular detachment, primarily because there is no male protagonist whose perspective he is asked to share. Nor do any of the women characters
reciprocate with a look of desire or challenge, which would thereby
bridge the necessary gap between them. This safety of distance
affords him a sadistic voyeurism, mirroring Christian Metzs figuration of the cinematic apparatus, the primary pleasure of which is
derived from peering into a private world that remains unaware
of spectators existence.15 This safe distance is doubly inscribed
by the filtering consciousness that mediates the male spectators
glimpse of the phenomena of horror in the films. In Dark Water, the
grown-up Ikuko as narrator provides another frame, while in A Tale
of Two Sisters, Su-mis narrative is told to the psychiatrist. Therefore,
the twice-removed male spectator is asked to view the bodies of
the female victims as the only visible monsters in these films. As the
triggers of the haunting in these two films, the female victims,
Mitsuko and Su-yeon, are inscribed as aberrant.
Conventionally, women have never been empowered to
wield the gaze either within or outside the cinematic frame, whether
as characters in the film or as members of the audience.16 Traditionally, women were known or socially expected to shield their eyes
at moments of horror on-screen, primarily because all they would
be witnessing would have been their own powerlessness in the face
of murder or mutilation, or their capitulation to the bloodlust of
werewolves or vampires. Stephen Heath has suggested that women
entrap themselves in patriarchal structures when they brandish
the gaze and dare to look back, as it were: If a woman looks, the
spectacle provokescastration is in the air and the Medusas head
is not far off.17 This is because, as Linda Williams documents, the
sexual purity of classical heroines on film is signaled by the failure or frustration of their vision. In contrast, the women who look
in classic horror films are the morally dubious vamps with their

Mothers and Daughters 151

dark, smoldering eyes. They are often in league with the devil and
punished at the end: their subjectivity becomes undermined as it
parodies the male look.18
Moreover, the look of a woman in horror films often petrifies her and puts her at the mercy of the monster. Unlike the
male voyeurs gaze, which is afforded the safety of distance that
surmounts the potential threat of the (castrated) female body it
views, the womans look of horror holds her in a passive, trancelike
state that allows the monster to master her through her look. At the
same time, in such scenes the iconic center shifts from the woman
to the monster. In Dark Water, for instance, Yoshimis look of horror
freezes her sufficiently for the ghostly specter to clutch her in a suffocating embrace. Likewise, Ikuko as a child on several occasions is
the victim of a trancelike passivity that nearly proves her undoing.
In the game of hide-and-seek at the kindergarten, a game that
involves looking for, Ikuko is paralyzed by her encounter with the
ghost-child and falls into a faint. In another instance, she is nearly
asphyxiated when she is mesmerized by the rising bathwater only
to have her head pulled under by a ghostly pair of hands.
Therefore the woman must not look but becomes herself
absorbed on the side of the seen, seeing herself seeing herself,
Lacans femininity.19 In short, her look takes the form of not seeing
anything apart from the castration that she emblematizes for the
male. However, this Freudian notion has been challenged by Susan
Lurie, who sees the real trauma for the young male as not that his
mother is castrated but that she is not.20 The castrated woman
thus becomes a defensive shield, a male-fabricated fantasy against
the woman as the wielder of a different kind of power, a potent
threat to male power. This power may be likened to the perpetual
status of the semiotic chora and its capacity for disruption. Nevertheless, in these two films, the heroines gaze (or lack thereof) is
still held largely responsible for her own downfall. In Dark Water,
Yoshimis active investigating gaze indicates her desire to ferret
out the source of the dark water. The camera closes in on her gaze
at several pivotal moments in the text: her repeated encounters
with the red schoolbag; her recognition of the drawing by Mitsuko;
her arrowing in on the poster of Mitsuko declared missing. All

152 Camera Obscura

this leads to the cataclysmic

moment in the elevator when
she is forced to avert her eyes
from the emerging image of
her bedraggled daughter to
confront the object of her
deepest, darkest fear: the
ectoplasm of the drowned
Mitsuko, who has hitherto
only been perceived as a nonmaterial presence (footsteps
in the flat above) or glimpsed
at a fuzzy distance under rain
and shadow. In A Tale of Two
Sisters, the plot hinges on
a duel of combative looks
between Eun-joo and Su-mi.
Williams, in her ana
Eun-joo dragging a bag, A Tale of Two
Sisters. Courtesy Festive Films Pte Ltd,
lysis of the female gaze, conSingapore
curs with Mary Ann Doanes
contention that the womans
exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous
with her own victimization.21 In other words, the womans gaze is
condemned by narrative processes that transform her curiosity and
desire into masochistic fantasy. Williams continues by stressing an
affinity between the woman and the monster in the horror film,
both of whom are construed as biological freaks with an overpowering potency from the perspective of the traumatized male, and
hence they are assigned equivalent status within the patriarchal
paradigm. The monster therefore functions as a double or doppelgnger for the woman, who is regarded as similarly constituted.22
In these two films, the identification of the female protagonists
with the ghosts is rendered both thematically and visually in terms
of the cinematic mise-en-scne. In Dark Water, Mitsuko and Yoshimi
are both neglected children waiting in vain to be collected by their
respective mothers. The opening shot of the film frames Yoshimi
as a child in the same way in which it frames Mitsuko later. As

Mothers and Daughters 153

Su-mi and Eun-joo, A Tale of Two Sisters. Courtesy Festive

Films Pte Ltd, Singapore

mentioned earlier in relation to the notion of loss, both are understood to be suffering from melancholia, the mourning for a lost
mother. In A Tale of Two Sisters, the stepmother regards the girls
as two halves of one entity. What Su-mi puts herself through in
her hallucinations is intended to duplicate what she imagines has
happened to her younger sister, Su-yeon, and, by extension, to her
late biological mother.
The notion of the gaze has implications for another offshoot of the horror genre, the phenomenon of the Final Girl.23
The strong self-preservation instinct of the female protagonist who
survives in the slasher flick has been seen as a positive adjustment
in gender representation since the heroine may cower before the
killer/monster, which renders her passive, but she is clearly active
in defending herself by seeking ways of survival. D. N. Rodowick
has gone so far as to assert that the structural complexity and
fluidity of spectatorial activity . . . may combine different mechanisms of defense (disavowal and repression) with intricate transactions between activity-passivity, sadism-masochism, and masculine
or feminine identifications in both men and women.24 In other
words, the sadistic male gaze might even adopt a victim-identified

154 Camera Obscura

point of view, affirming the existence of oscillating subjective positions in place of fixed gender prescriptions. However, even the figure of the Final Girl is given short shrift in these two films, if she
can be pinpointed at all. Ikuko survives the ordeal in Dark Water,
but she has no other option but to assimilate into the law of the
father. In A Tale of Two Sisters, Su-mi also submits to the clinical
ambience of the sanatorium run by male doctors, an environment
of sanitized orderliness (characterized by an opening montage of
white walls and washing hands as in a cleansing, purging ritual),
the exact opposite of the bloodshed and mayhem in the stifling
family house. As a result of the unexpected volte-face in the narrative, when events are suddenly revealed to be the feverish projections of Su-mis troubled psyche, the stepmother could have qualified as the Final Girl. However, even this possibility is undercut by
the supernatural denouement in which the stepmother returns to
the scene of the crime and gets her comeuppance from manifestly
preternatural forces.

The Sociohistorical Context of Male Anxiety

One therefore observes that the contemporary Asian gothic is

ultimately conservative and betrays the narrative attempt either to
contain or resolve, to some degree, the contemporary weakening
of patriarchal authority, or to deal with the ostensible contradictions between the mythology of the bourgeois family and its actual
social manifestations. Hence it is crucial to take note of relevant
material dimensions affecting the cinematic text, as arising from
salient sociohistorical factors. Recent studies of Japanese culture,
for instance, have divulged startling trends in gender relations.
According to the latest survey by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics, an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education,
Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology in Japan, some 56 percent of Japanese women feel they have more fun in life than men,
while 69 percent would like to be born the same sex if given a
second chance at life. This latest poll involved 2,350 women under
the age of eighty. Such findings would have been inconceivable
decades ago when many Japanese women might have wished to

Mothers and Daughters 155

be born a man in their next life. The survey, conducted every five
years since 1953, has testified to womens rising status, as well as to
their increasing propensity to put off marriage plans, thus contributing to changing patterns in family and society. From 1953 until
the 1970s, more than 60 percent of respondents felt that Japanese
society provided more enjoyment for men than women, while
only 20 percent believed the contrary. But since 1998, the gap
has narrowed significantly. While some have waxed positive about
the survey, others have seen it as a bleak prognosis about Japans
future, reports Mainichi Shimbun, which also quotes the institutes spokesman, Yoshiyuki Sakamoto, as saying that the results
may indicate a society with little for men to enjoy.25
It is also more than coincidental that the same issue of the
Straits Times carried a lengthy report about the surge of child abuse
in Japan. According to the latest figures from the Health Ministry,
there were 23,738 recorded cases of child abuse in the year leading
to March 2003, up from 1,101 in 1990. Experts have attributed the
alarming surge to the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family
and to the isolation of an increasing number of mothers. Families
economic problems and the situation in single-parent households
are the primary causes of abuse, reflected Masahide Terazaki, an
official at a child consultation center in Tokyo, while the French
psychologist Frances Beaumard, who has worked in Japan for over
thirty years, concurred that child abuse is directly linked to the
family unit, which is undergoing a radical shift in paradigm.26 By
the same token, films like Norang Meori (Yellow Hair, dir. Yu-min
Kim, 1999) from South Korea, which concerns two teenage runaway girls who are the aggressors in a protracted sexual tryst with a
middle-aged man old enough to be their father, serve as trenchant
social commentary about a similar state of gender relations and
dysfunctional family units in Japans immediate neighbor. Coupled
with an increasing number of female heads of state in Asia, it would
not be hasty to suggest the likelihood of male anxieties in the Asia
of the new millennium.
It may be appropriate to end with Kristeva, whose psychoanalytic theories have informed this essay. Kristeva contends that
religion has historically served to purify the abject. With the disin-

156 Camera Obscura

tegration of traditional forms of religion, however, that catharsis

par excellence called art has been saddled with the task.27 Hence
it is now the role of the horror film to purify the abject through a
descent into the bottomless primacy constituted by primal repression (18). The monstrous-feminine may be a leitmotif, but like all
metaphors, it is conceived, as Dudley Andrew has argued, not only
as a substitution but as a process resulting in the re-description of
a semantic field.28 Figuration, therefore, entails the figure actively
engaged in transforming the text and being itself transformed
through its work: adjusting the system of representation and the
demands of the psyche and culture each to the other.29 In the contemporary Asian horror film, the cinema seems distinctly to have
become the modern purification ritual that shields the symbolic
order from all that threatens its stability.


1. Barry Keith Grant, ed., The Dread of Difference: Gender and the
Horror Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996). I am
indebted to many ideas advanced by contributors to this
2. Tony Williams, Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s
Family Horror, in Grant, The Dread of Difference, 166.
3. Vivian Sobchack, Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy
and Generic Exchange, in Grant, The Dread of Difference, 144.
4. For a related study, see Dave Kehr, The New Male Melodrama,
American Film 8 (1983): 4247.
5. Carol J. Clover, Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,
in Grant, The Dread of Difference, 8287.
6. Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York:
Routledge, 1992), 3940.

Barbara Creed, Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An

Imaginary Abjection, in Grant, The Dread of Difference, 4041.
The two key terms in my analysisabjection and the monstrousfeminineare inspired by Creeds study.

Mothers and Daughters 157

8. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection, trans. Leon S.

Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 34.
9. See Noelle McAfees Julia Kristeva (New York: Routledge, 2004)
for a concise critique.
10. Creed, Horror, 53.
11. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, in The Origins of Religion,
ed. Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, and Albert Dickson
(Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1985), 206, quoted in Creed,
Horror, 5152.
12. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and
Institution (New York: Norton, 1986), 16364.
13. Sheila Kitzringer, Women as Mothers (New York: Random House,
1978), 78.
14. See Mulveys groundbreaking essay, Visual Pleasure and
Narrative Cinema, Screen 16 (1975): 618.
15. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, Screen 16 (1975):
16. Linda Williams, When the Woman Looks, in Grant, The Dread
of Difference, 22. My ideas are inspired by Williamss analysis.
17. Stephen Heath, Difference, Screen 19 (1978): 92.
18. Williams, When the Woman Looks, 17.
19. Heath, Difference, 92.
20. Susan Lurie, Pornography and the Dread of Woman, in Take
Back the Night, ed. Laura Lederer (New York: Morrow, 1980),
21. Mary Ann Doane, The Womans Film: Possession and
Address, in Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and
Linda Williams, eds., Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism
(Frederick, MD: University Publications of America/American
Film Institute, 1984), 72.
22. Williams, When the Woman Looks, 2224.
23. Clover, Her Body, 8287.

158 Camera Obscura

24. D. N. Rodowick, The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual

Difference, and Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 1991), 82.
25. Japanese Girls Just Have More Fun, Straits Times, 1 May 2004.
26. Japan Wakes Up to Surge in Child Abuse, Straits Times, 1 May
27. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 17.
28. Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1984), 167.
29. Sobchack, Bringing It All Back Home, 148.

K K Seet established the Theatre Studies Programme at the National

University of Singapore in 1992. He advises on both literature and
theater at the National Arts Council, for which he was recently
conferred the Special Recognition Award by the Ministry of
Communication, Information, and the Arts, Singapore. Seet has
adjudicated on every major Singaporean playwriting competition and
is also the longest serving judge of the annual theater awards given
out by the national broadsheet The Straits Times. Holding degrees
from the universities of Singapore, Toronto, Exeter, London, and
Edinburgh, Seet is the author of twelve books and is a regular face
on the International Emmynominated series The Arena, produced
by Mediacorp Television, Singapore. He also hosted Film Art and
Art Nation on Arts Central Television, Singapore.

Mothers and Daughters 159

Dark Water (dir. Hideo Nakata, Japan, 2002).

Courtesy Photofest

<Mothers and Daughters: Abjection and the Monstrous-Feminine in Japans

Dark Water and South Koreas A Tale of Two Sisters
K K Seet>

The rarely analyzed Asian horror film, which has had great impact on
international film audiences recently as a result of Hollywood remakes, is
increasingly mired in the milieu of home and hearth, leading to a new Asian
variation of the domestic gothic. With specific reference to Japans Dark Water
(2002) and South Koreas A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), this essay proposes that the
current orientation evinces the anxieties of a patriarchal culture denied its
sovereignty as the result of a widening gulf between the mythology of the
bourgeois family and its actual social manifestations. The female protagonists in
these films are, accordingly, associated with Julia Kristevas notion of abjection
(in particular, the construction of the maternal figure as abject through the
imagery of parturition and the primal scene) and depicted in various guises as
the monstrous-feminine, a potent source of disruption that threatens the
symbolic realm. By charting the mother-daughter nexus and suggesting that
daughters continue to seek the semiotic chora even after the thetic break, these
films also address a discernable lack in Kristevas theory of abjection by paying
due attention to the implications of gender in the psychological constitution of
the subject. As a further extension into the cinematic representation of women,
the female usurpation of the gaze will also be dissected in terms of its adverse
consequences in these films. The essay therefore argues that the current Asian
horror film is ultimately conservative and functions as a form of narrative
containment, the modern purification ritual that emphasizes the need to be

recuperated into the male order of things.