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“Sisters on the Road” marks the debut of female writer director Boo Ji Young, and as the title suggests, is a drama following two sisters on a voyage of discovery and an exploration of their shared pasts. The film has an impressive cast, with the two siblings in question being played by actresses Shin Min Ah (recently in “The Naked Kitchen”) and Kong Hyo Jin (superb in the award winning, Park Chan Wook produced “Crush and Blush”), and has enjoyed success at festivals, premiering at Pusan in 2008.
The film starts with young Seoul businesswoman Myung Eun (Shin Min Ah) travelling to Jeju Island for the funeral of her mother, having not been home for some years. Although she had effectively cut herself off from her family, when she meets her older fishmonger half-sister Myung Ju (Kong Hyo Jin) again, this brings back her insecurities at her father having abandoned her as a child. Rather than returning to the big city, she decides to take the reluctant Myung Ju on a road trip to find him, a journey which not only reignites old grudges and sends skeletons tumbling from the family closet, but which forces Myung Eun to re-examine her childhood memories.
Although its premise may sound fairly simplistic, “Sisters on the Road” is an emotionally very complex and rich affair. As might be expected, Myung Eun and Myung Ju are very different women, though thankfully not in a basic good/bad or wild/conservative way, with both being fully fleshed out and wholly believable characters. The relationship between the two is far from straightforward, changing and developing as the film progresses, and with their dynamic constantly shifting. The film is surprisingly tense, particularly during the early stages, with director Boo making it clear that things are building towards confrontations in which long harboured ill feelings will be aired, and indeed, the two sisters spend a great deal of the running time shouting at each other or in stony silence as they work through their many issues. Thankfully, she shows a steady hand, and never allows the film to slide into conventional melodrama and never takes the easy route of having the two miraculously solve all their problems by crying on each others’ shoulders.
Both actresses turn in fine performances, especially Shin Min Ah, who eventually emerges to drive the film as it becomes clear that the narrative essentially revolves around her and her coming to terms with the truth about her family and her own past. The film deals with themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, not only with others, but with oneself, and it does so in a quiet rather than overtly cathartic manner. This fits well with Boo’s naturalistic, intimate style, and the film is moving in a way which slowly creeps up on the viewer as opposed to making obvious tugs at the heartstrings in the usual style.
Unsurprisingly, given that the film deals with the past, to a large extent it progresses through a great many flashbacks. These are skilfully woven into the proceedings, and never interrupt the narrative flow or become distracting. Similarly, although inevitably most of these are of childhood scenes, they not used for cheap nostalgia or mawkishness, but work very well to flesh out characters and to explain crucial plot points.
What is certain to throw viewers off balance is a completely leftfield revelation that comes out of nowhere at the start of the final act, and which even the keenest of twist spotters are unlikely to catch in advance. Bizarre and quite disturbing in its own way, this development may well have derailed other less mature films, though here it is handled with taste and balance, and Boo uses it to play upon love and devotion. As such, she just about manages to pull it off, and certainly makes the final twenty minutes a great deal more interesting than is usual for the genre, and ensures that the film will stick in the mind after the credits have rolled.
In the increasing crowded field of small scale intimate indie character dramas, this is actually no small benefit, and it helps “Sisters on the Road” to stand out from its peers. Alternately involving and unexpectedly challenging, it stands as a refreshingly honest example of the form and a fine slice of character driven drama.
Boo Ji-young (director) / Boo Ji-young (screenplay)
CAST: Kong Hyo-jin, Sin Min-ah, Choo Kwi-jeong, Kim Sang-hyeon, Moon Jae-won, Bae Eun-jin