A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003)
A family is haunted by the tragedies of deaths within the family.
During the late-1990s, the mountainous rise of South Korean cinema reached its peak with the release of Swiri (1999). Kang Je-gyu’s imaginative vision and inventiveness renovated the Korean film industry and birthed Korean New Wave. A generation of new filmmakers, including Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), displayed both a broad appreciation of cinema and a unique perspective. During this resurgence, Korean horror also experienced amazing evolution after being influenced by the successful Japanese horrors of the late-’90s. Utilising their own themes and ideologies, horrors such as Whispering Corridors (1998) and Pulse (2001) allowed Korean horror to develop a style of its own.
Defined by his versatility and creativity, Kim Jee-Woon was amongst the Korean New Wave alumni. His first feature, The Quiet Family (1998), defied the rules of horror and inspired Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). By bending standard conventions, he effortlessly surprised audiences with unforeseen developments and plot twists. In 2003, he then amazed audiences with the deeply disturbing A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon / 장화,홍련 ). Enveloped with a mysterious atmosphere and foreboding, A Tale of Two Sisters is a tragic psychological horror pierced with supernatural elements.
A Tale of Two Sisters follows Soo-Mi (Im Soo-jung) and her younger sister, Su-Yeon (Moon Geun-young), after returning home from the hospital. At first, things appear normal, but the family dynamic’s changed drastically. Their return is welcomed by their widowed father’s (Moon Geun-young) new wife, Eun-Joo (Yum Jung-ah), but Soo-mi and Su-yeon develop a bitter resentment towards their stepmother as she continuously harasses them. Tensions rise between the abusive stepmother and Soo-mi after she discovers bruises on her fragile younger sister. Unfortunately, the girls have no choice but to endure their stepmother, for their father’s sake, but as the sisters attempt to resume their regular lives, unexplainable events begin to plague the house. Are these occurrences real or just part of the sisters’ imagination..?
This tragic tale about a fractured family is kept together thanks to an ensemble of incredible performances. Despite her young age, Im Soo-jung (I’m a Cyborg) is more than capable of carrying the film. As Soo-mi, she conveys the necessary fear, anger, and confusion at appropriate moments without resorting to theatrics. Alongside her Moon Geun-young (Glass Garden) displays beautiful melancholia as the youngest sister, Soo-yeon. The actress conveys a powerful image of fragility and shyness that contrasts perfectly with her sister’s rebellious nature. Together they share a believably strong bond and both deliver a convincing portrayal of being traumatised in different ways. Additionally, Yum Jung-ah is deceitfully cheerful and hauntingly evil as the malicious stepmother, Eun-joo. Following her venomous performance in H (2002) and chilling role in Tell Me Something (1999), she carries the intimidating rage required. Yum is mesmerising and gives such a deliciously evil character a whole new dimension. And while his role’s considerably smaller, Kim Kap-su (Blood And Ties) delivers a subtle yet good performance as the downtrodden father, Moo-hyeon.
The third feature by writer-director Kim Jee-woon is different in tone than his previous comedy The Quiet Family (1998) and fantasy The Foul King (2000). Based on the classic Korean folktale “Janghwa Hongryeon Jeon”, A Tale of Two Sisters unfolds like classic Gothic horror. Displaying a mastery in the manipulation of suspense, the filmmaker creates more than a reasonable degree of spooky atmosphere. Even as an experienced horror connoisseur, the appearance of ghastly apparitions creeping out of wardrobes and from under the sink is terrifying. A particularly eerie scene occurs when Soo-mi wakes up in the night, and as her eyes wander across the room she notices a black figure crawling across the floor at the bottom of her bed. Accompanied by croaking noises, it stands with its neck seemingly broken and contorted posture. The images of the unearthly girl are undeniably influenced by Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000). However, what would’ve quickly become predictable under different direction is turned into a masterpiece of subtlety.
Those expecting a typical J-Horror will be pleasantly surprised by A Tale of Two Sisters as it truly adds a new dimension to the style devised in the late-’90s. Although it shares similarities to its Japanese cousins, beneath the surface is a significant amount of depth. As demonstrated with his short feature Memories in the Asian anthology Three (2002), Kim Jee-woon understands how human personalities reveal their natural state following a traumatic experience. Echoing Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), A Tale of Two Sisters is an immensely engrossing psychological horror that explores human emotions. Kim’s handling of themes ranging from remorse, grief, and fear is something to behold as he peels back the layers. Although we don’t fully understand the sisters’ past, there are hints of repressed trauma scattered throughout. In a particularly chilling scene, Eun-joo says “Do know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away and it follows you around like a ghost.” A Tale of Two Sisters shows that some traumatic events can’t be purged from one’s consciousness, and Kim succeeds in making this concept nightmarish.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a hybrid of genres and Kim shows his mastery of tone. Running through this classic ghost story is a tense and agonising study of a broken family struggling with grief, with Kim’s screenplay fluctuating between breathtaking terror, supernatural mystery, and domestic melodrama, while the unsettling mood remains consistent. Similar to The Innocents (1961) and Mommie Dearest (1981), Kim instills a deeply disturbing terror around the dysfunctional relationship between the girls and their stepmother. The clearest indicator occurs during a moment when Eun-joo becomes jealous of any affection Soo-mi shows towards their father. Initially, it appears to be a distinct power struggle for the vacant mother role within the family. However, as the tension increases, she becomes controlling, cruel, and violent towards the sisters. After finding her beloved pet bird dead and old photographs of herself crossed out, she goes on an uncontrollable rampage. Assuming Soo-yeon is behind the inauspicious incidents, the stepmother locks her in a mysterious wardrobe. What commences thereon only mystifies the story as the family dynamic moves deeper into mayhem and illusion.
What differentiates A Tale of Two Sisters from its South Korean counterparts is the meticulously crafted production design. Similar to his contemporaries including Hideo Nakata (Dark Water) and Takashi Miike (Audition), Kim effortlessly reflects the character’s inner turmoil within the environment. Shot almost entirely in a single location, the house exudes an ominous dread from the beginning. Deriving plenty of inspiration from The Shining (1980), it transforms into a strange and disturbing labyrinth as the tension increases. Enhanced by Lee Mo-gae’s (Springtime) methodical cinematography, the remote Japanese countryside, and the eerie foreboding are captured beautifully. The muted browns and dull sepia tones are accompanied by precise lighting that exquisitely accentuates the claustrophobia. Providing the correct environment for Soo-mi’s nightmare to slowly unfold, it’s decorated with complex floral patterns and lavish mahogany furniture. Whereas the long dark corridors rarely allow sunlight to penetrate the somber atmosphere. Each crevice aches with remorse and dread throughout, echoing the nightmarish giallos of Dario Argento (Inferno) and Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace). The extraordinary attention to detail and Kim’s attempt to recreate Soo-mi’s shattered mind elevates A Tale of Two Sisters above most South Korean horrors.
The majority of A Tale of Two Sisters’ criticisms arise from its rather convoluted and indecipherable narrative. It’s a psychological puzzle with layers of escalating dread to heighten the confusion. However, to appreciate the story one has to learn to live with the questions that remain unsolved. While differentiating his work from The Other (1972) and The Sixth Sense (1991), Kim stated “horror films usually give key answers at the end of the film. But I tried to move ahead, revealing the answers by the middle of the film”. Although there is a spectacular climax, the various hints and visual motifs presented throughout are key to connecting the dots. During one early scene, Eun-joo approaches the sisters creating the unmistakable impression of a ghost gliding over the floorboards. Whereas later, Soo-mi’s startled when she places her diary on a desk and discovers it’s already there. The filmmaker continuously plays with the audience’s perception, blurring the boundaries of reality and imagination. Eventually, once all the secrets are revealed, the audience is left to reconstruct a coherent story. Admittedly, some viewers may find the ambiguous conclusion unsatisfying. However, A Tale of Two Sisters functions better as a psychological horror where the pieces don’t quite fit together.
Following its release, A Tale of Two Sisters received critical acclaim. Opening powerfully in South Korea, it replaced The Matrix Reloaded (2003) in the top spot during its opening weekend. Earning approximately $1M at the US box office, it remains the highest-grossing South Korean horrors to be screened stateside. Unfortunately, Kim distanced himself from the horror genre with follow-ups The Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird (2008). However, he satisfied gorehounds with his outstanding revenge-thriller I Saw The Devil (2010). Naturally, Hollywood couldn’t leave a stone unturned and A Tale of Two Sisters was remade in the US as The Uninvited (2009). Despite a recognisable cast, including Elizabeth Banks (Brightburn) and David Strathairn (Nomadland), it failed to compete with the original. Thankfully, it’s been largely forgotten, while A Tale of Two Sisters remains an unparalleled entry in the South Korean horror genre.
A Tale Of Two Sisters is a heart-wrenching character study and psychological horror wrapped up in one beautifully orchestrated package. Enhanced by brooding photography, Kim Jee-woon sets the foreboding tone from the off and remains loyal to it throughout. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking and a provocative examination of the darker side of human emotions. The filmmaker demonstrates his versatility as a director while creating a visceral piece of storytelling that’s captivating and unpredictable. Admittedly, the deliberately methodical pacing and demanding narrative may deter some viewers. However, it makes for an incredibly rewarding experience.
SOUTH KOREA | 2003 | 115 MINUTES | 1:78:1 | COLOUR | KOREAN
Following the release of Oldboy (2003), it’s wonderful to see Arrow Video release another highly esteemed piece of Korean New Wave. Presented with the original aspect ratio of 1:78:1, A Tale of Two Sisters showcases a beautiful 1080p transfer. Boasting a striking amount of fine detail, minor details such as hair strands, fabric textures, and William Morris’ intricate wallpaper patterns can easily be discerned. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the vibrant colour palette that creates some stunning tones. Lee Mo-gae’s beautiful cinematography creates a stark visual style that transitions wonderfully to Blu-ray. the colour palette is as dark as the film’s content, but the occasional vivid primaries and deep brown interiors are gorgeously reproduced. Whereas the black levels and shadows are almost impenetrable, heightening the atmosphere.
A Tale of Two Sisters features a Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and a Korean DTS 2.0 with optional English subtitles. Admittedly, there’s no discernible difference between the two audio tracks on either option. However, both audio options provide a precise separation, creating an incredibly powerful, crisp and immersive experience. Lee Byung-woo’s sombre score is handled beautifully and remains a highlight of the presentation. His use of warm and melodic strings sweep the soundstage, amplifying the incredibly intense atmosphere. It’s crisp, spacious, and benefits a great deal from the surround presentation. Anchoring primarily at the front, dialogue is wonderfully stable and remains consistent with no undertones of distortions. Although the audio tracks will not test the muscle of your sound system, they’re well balanced throughout the sound field.
writer & director: Kim Jee-woon.
starring: Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yum Jung-ah & Kim Kap-su.