Korean director Kim Ji-woon’s “A Tale of Two Sisters” has been hailed as one of the best Asian horror films of recent years, and has been snapped up by the Hollywood machine for a Western release and pointless remake. Although the plot and central premise may at first sound suspiciously familiar, and though Asian ghost stories are rapidly outstaying their welcome, the film succeeds not so much through its supernatural aspects, but rather its fascinating psychological examination of grief and sadness.
Whilst this is certainly a horror film, there are few scares, and it is the complex, ambiguous plot which sticks in the mind, of which there can be several different interpretations. This is the kind of film which deserves, and indeed inspires, repeated viewings in order to unravel its intriguing mysteries, giving elusive hints and clues rather than the usual barrage of cheap tricks which have ruined so many others.
The plot of “A Tale of Two Sisters” is actually based upon an ancient folk tale which has been filmed several times before, and so viewers would be forgiven for feeling an initial lack of inspiration. Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun), two very close young sisters, return from an unexplained absence to their father’s new house. The girls are very different — Su-mi is confident and aggressive, whilst Su-yeon is passive and rarely speaks. After their mother’s death, their father (Kap-su Kim, “KT”) has remarried, and their rather odd new stepmother (played by Jung-ah Yum, recently in “Three…Extremes”) treats them coldly, making it quite clear that they are not welcome.
Following the sisters’ return to the house, a series of strange things begin to happen, which seem to suggest some kind of supernatural presence. This only serves to heighten the tension, and the girls’ relationship with their stepmother deteriorates further into spiteful and petty acts of cruelty and even violence. As events escalate, dark secrets from the past are uncovered as the horrific truth behind events in the house becomes tragically clear.
Kim Ji-woon forayed into the horror genre previously with “The Quiet Family” and “Three: Memories”, and there are some similarities between those two films and “A Tale of Two Sisters”, which builds and indeed improves upon both. One of the strongest points of “Sisters” is its beautiful cinematography, which as in the other films is a melancholy mixture of muted, pale colors and dark shadows. This helps to generate a very effective atmosphere, which is both quite creepy and imbued with an intrinsic sadness.
Ji-woon pays great attention to details, and uses the film’s visuals not only for aesthetic value, but to carry much of the meaning and underlying themes. Although viewers may not catch all of the clues and symbolism upon first watching the film, there are a great many hints to the plot and the psychology of the characters embedded within each frame. Ji-woon directs with a deliberate, confident pace, concentrating on character and plot rather than action, and there are only a handful of obvious scare scenes in the film. However, this gives the proceedings a richness and depth that truly sets it apart from similar films.
The plot is genuinely fascinating, and without relying on the easy option of a ‘big twist’ style ending, it captivates and keeps the viewer trying to work out exactly what is going on, and from which character’s perspective we are seeing events. Even after the film has ended, it is not exactly clear what has happened, and there are a number of different possible interpretations, especially regarding the supernatural elements.
The acting is first rate, especially from relative newcomers Su-jeong Lim and Geun-yeong Mun as the titular sisters. Both are wholly convincing and give the film an affecting emotional heart. Although Kap-su Kim doesn’t have a great deal to do in the role of the father, Jung-ah Yum (“H”) gives a note-perfect performance as the apparently wicked stepmother, who is cruel yet undeniably sympathetic.
The only real problem with “A Tale of Two Sisters” is the sense of familiarity which comes with the fact that it is another in a long line of Asian ghost stories which feature spirits that may or may not be real. In addition to this, there are a few appearances by that most common of specters, the longhaired female ghoul. Whilst her presence here is undoubtedly justified, and indeed necessary, it does leave the viewer with a slightly bad taste in the mouth. However, it is hard to fault the film on the weaknesses of its peers, and though the longhaired ghost has become the Asian equivalent of the 80’s slasher maniac, this can perhaps be overlooked.
Overall, “A Tale of Two Sisters” is an excellent, atmospheric and thoughtful film that eschews horror in favor of mood and a melancholic sadness that permeates almost every aspect of the production. Likely to haunt viewers long after the credits have rolled, it is definitely a superior, if slightly unoriginal, slice of Asian cinema.
Ji-woon Kim (director) / Ji-woon Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Kap-su Kim …. Bae Moo-hyeon
Jung-ah Yum …. Eun-joo
Su-jeong Lim …. Bae Soo-mi
Geun-yeong Mun …. Bae Soo-yeon