A Tale of Two Sisters
Directed by Jee-woon Kim
Starring Su-jeong Lim, Geun-young Moon, Jung-ah Yum, Kap-su Kim
Review by Jordan
“There’s something strange in this house”
Like the deceptively homely and calming floral wallpaper, pain and confusion line every room of the delicately disturbed family home in Jee-woon Kim’s 2003 adaptation of Joseon Dynasty folktale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon: A Tale of Two Sisters.
When close sisters Soo-mi and Soo-yeon return home from an unexplained absence, their previous animosity towards their unstable stepmother Eun-joo resumes, much to the ire of their withdrawn and encumbered father. The protective Soo-mi claims Eun-joo to be physically tormenting Soo-yeon, with both girls resenting their familial situation and seeking each other for comfort and security, scared for their safety and the impact of Eun-joo’s manipulative nature.
The sadness that permeates from the grand building brings with it not only grief, but ghosts also, captured in a terrifying manner standing over the girls’ bed and hiding in the kitchen. Whether or not these spectres are real or imagined matters little once the violence shifts from their appearance to the present, with the past they represent being one of heartbreaking manner, making their dreadful presence all the more palpable.
The horror in this film is confined mainly to the first half, but resonates through the more mysterious second through its macabre imagery and constant sense of instability. Once the plot transforms and twists announce themselves, understanding how each opaque piece fits becomes a difficult and daunting task, with some questions lingering even after the harrowing conclusion. A large part of the allure of this tale is its ability to confound without frustration; it could easily veer too far from the linear, but never does it stray from its core interest of narrowing in on the affected mind of the emotionally isolated Soo-mi, and her increasingly unreadable interactions with her quiet sister. Their bond is unspoken and intense; fracturing is hinted, but the realisation that apart they would be vulnerable keeps them together. What their father sees, though, may be much separated from their own perception of events.
The highest grossing Korean horror film upon release, as well as the first to achieve a theatrical release in American cinemas, A Tale of Two Sisters is an example of the film-making craft making its audience think, feel and fear all in the same breath, and when this is achieved you quickly realise there is not much more you could want from art in any form.