Asian Horror / Ghosts
Trivia The movie is inspired by a famous Korean folk tale "Janghwa Heungryeonjeon." In the original story, the sisters' names are Janghwa and Hongryeon (Rose Flower and Red Lotus). In the movie, they are Su-mi and Su-yeon (still mean Rose and Lotus).
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A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
19th Nov 04
Two sisters who, after spending time in a mental institution, return to the home of their father and cruel stepmother. Once there, in addition to dealing with their stepmother's obsessive and unbalanced ways, an interfering ghost also affects their recovery.
Korea is providing one or two good movies of late (most notably Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy which garnered huge critical acclaim recently and took a tidy sum at the box office too), and now to DVD, after a brief theatrical run, comes A Tale of Two Sisters, an atmospheric chiller that was Korea’s third highest grossing movie of 2003.
Based on a Korean folk tale "Janghwa Heungryeonjeon" Kim Jee-woon’s film follows the story of two sisters who return to their father and stepmother’s house after spending some time in hospital. Su-mi is the eldest of the two, and it is she that seems to harbour the most resentment to her father and (especially) her stepmother. Younger sister, Su-yeon is more withdrawn and is happy to be led around by her big sis, but on the first night of sleeping at the house, a strange presence tries to enter Su-yeon’s room and, frightened, she goes to sleep with Su-mi in her room. That night Su-mi dreams of being in a alone in a forest, covered in blood, before she wakes and ‘sees’ a ghost enter the room in one of the most creepy moments of Asian cinema since The Eye’s spooks jumped out of our screens.
The next morning, relationships in the house grow increasingly strained, as the girls become more withdrawn as they pine for their dead mother, and the stepmother grows increasingly more bullish towards the sisters in order to gain control (it also doesn’t help that all three women spookily get their periods all on the same day). There’s also the fact that the house seems to be haunted and could be hiding some sinister secrets in its shadows.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a beautiful film to look at, even on the small screen. The cinematography and the production design of the film are one of the first things you notice as the girls run around the new house, sitting on the edge of a wharf on a lake or picking red flowers. It’s a film full of colour, whether it is frequent flashes of vivid red set alongside contrasting cool blues, or the purple and green motifs, clearly a lot of thought has gone into setting the right emotional mood for each scene. Gunning for emotion over plotting, Kim Jee-woon introduces us to the characters slowly, happy to linger in the family’s dysfunction as the girl’s attempt to ignore their stepmother. The unease builds slowly as we’re not really quite sure exactly what’s happening within the family unit, although there are obviously some unspoken family secrets that need to be aired.
Yet this is a ghost story so requisite chills need to be delivered too, alongside the emotional themes. Kim Jee-woon is more than able to step up to the challenge, thankfully as a scary scene involving someone creeping into Su-yeon’s room is quickly superseded by the first genuinely unnerving ‘real’ ghost appearance in the room. From here on in, there is many a good spine-tingling moment (the girl under the kitchen sink is played out to perfection) as the truth gradually begins to unravel (or does it?), and Su-mi becomes increasingly mentally unstable.
The film is greatly helped by very strong performances all round including Geun-yeong Mun as Su-yeon, but it’s Su-jeong Lim who really shines as Su-mi and holds the film together, or as well as she can as the film becomes more and more fragmented. Towards the end we are thrust into nail-biting moments of tension and suspense as flashbacks, dream sequences and events from different points of view are displayed in a manner that makes it difficult ourselves to know what is really happening? What or who is the ‘ghost’? What is imaginary? What is real? What is all a just bad dream?
Confused? You will be, but that could also be part of the plan. By allowing us to see through the slightly skewed vision of the elder sister Su-mi, our own disorientation adds to the menace, creating a true sense of mounting horror, and it may take a second viewing to truly reward in the same way that Memento needed to be seen again to make sure the puzzle pieces really did fit together.
It’s not a film for your average slasher film fan as it’s not afraid to take its time in setting up the set-up, and with its open narrative type of storytelling, it won’t please those who want every little detail spelt out. If you’re expecting something as quick and furiously ‘punk’ as The Ring or the Eye you may be a little disappointed, as this film is more prepared to take its time and let the emotions carry the film rather than the plot, and in that case it requires more patience from us viewers.
But if you like films that are gorgeously filmed, well performed and suitably moody and atmospheric with some truly scary standout moments, you will get a lot out of this film. Kim Jee-woon is clearly going to be a director to be watched (he also made the black comedy The Quiet Family which inspired Miike Takashi’s Happiness of the Katakuris), so prepare yourself for a new wave of American horror remakes, especially as this film is already receiving the Hollywood treatment from Dreamworks, although sadly not with Kim Jee-woon on board, as he has already expressed no interest in the project.
Versions The Tartan DVD comes with a whole disc of extras including some deleted scenes, commentaries with the director and actresses and cast and crew interviews. It also includes an interview with Kim Jee-woon by Billy Chainsaw, which is exclusive to the UK edition. You can buy the 2 Disc box set at Amazon, or enter our A Tale of Two Sisters competition to win one of three copies given to us by Tartan Video. (Closes December 5th).
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