A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 18, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Aztec International (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 1.77:1 (16:9 enhanced). Korean DD 5.1. English subtitles. 109 minutes
The Movie
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Screenplay: Ji-woon Kim
Country: South Korea
AKA: Janghwa, Hongryeon
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Don't be expecting anything like one of my hopefully usually extensive reviews for this bad boy. To summarise this film extensively would take away all of its shocks and surprises, and personally, I'd like you to see it as I did, without any real preconceptions, in order to fully feel its impact and weight. Plus there'd be some shocking spoilers, to boot. Rest assured, you aren't getting any of those here.

The two sisters of the title are Su-Mi (the elder) and Su- Yeon (the younger), whose father Mu-Hyun has re-married after the death of their mother. The step-mother, Eun-Joo is a real bitch, who wants to instigate a despotic rule on the household, running things as she sees fit, without giving so much as a tinker's cuss as to what the other inmates of the house have to say. She's an idle shallow gossip with about as much depth as a child's wading pool. And like a child, despises being gainsaid in any way shape or form.

It's worth mentioning at this early point that the colour palette is quite muted, with the colour red being a strong visual metaphor right from the get-go, as with Sam Mendes' American Beauty. What it's a metaphor for, I'll leave up to you, but it needn't be a negative one. At least, not all the time. The importance of the colour red is made all the more apparent when looking at the literal translation of the film's title, "Rose Flower, Red Lotus". Blue, as the opposing colour in the spectrum is used to similar effect.

Su-Mi is the dominant sister, Su-Yeon is damaged goods, and needs to be taken care of by her. It's established pretty early on that Eun-Joo has been abusing the girls psychologically as well as physically, and that vulnerable Su-Yeon has been the principle target. The girls have arrived back at the family house (which should be a place of comfort and sanctuary, but here is represented as cold, claustrophobic and comfortless), from where we're not quite sure, but it's a reasonable guess that it's some kind of institution. Their stepmother seems all for the idea of trying to provide the image that they're a happy family for the benefit of outsiders, but the reality of the fact that her step-daughters despise and fear her, and that her husband sleeps on the couch can't be avoided.

If we're looking at films as representing or mirroring contextual paradigm shifts, then this one's showing us that Korean family values are being held up for grabs in a contemporary milieu. As shown to us in other Asian horror films of the last ten years or so (such films as Audition, Kairo, Park Chan Wook's Vengeance trilogy and even the madcap excesses of The Happiness of the Katakuris), the notion of identity (both of the self – the id and ego - and in terms of the collective unconscious – the super-ego) and how members of a family (or even friends) see themselves and each other, and interact is highlighted here. We seemingly can't know other people, even those we might nominally seem to be close to. And do we ever really know ourselves? The modern horror film would suggest not. This all harks back to the existentialist writers of the 1950s, and shows us that in the last 50 years we still haven't really come to terms with who we are, or our place in society, represented by the microcosm of the family unit – the visual motif of the claustrophobic horror of the closet seems rather apt here.

The cinematography of this film is quite superb. It's like watching a del Toro, or Jeunet and Caro film – part-way between lurid horror and oneiric fantasy. The background becomes a character as much as anyone on screen. Ditto the acting – A Tale of Two Sisters boasts some excellent understated performances, many of which help to throw actor Yeom Jeong-A's harsh, jagged, jangling portrayal of Eun-Joo into sharp relief.

Meanwhile, things back at the ranch keep getting increasingly weird. Bad dreams, memories, dysfunctional relationships and parental abuse of children are the order of the day. The visuals, when things go bad, have all the logic of a nightmare – we keep asking ourselves what's real and what's not while watching A Tale of Two Sisters – you're never quite sure about the sanity of various characters, nor whether what we're seeing is natural or supernatural. Disturbing? You bet, and in the best possible way. What I like about this film is that it keeps its secrets in these regards right up until the very last moment. It's a deliberately paced family drama, playing the psychological card very strongly indeed. When you do get to the end, all of the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly, and if you can see what's coming before that moment, then you're a much cleverer cookie than me. When you watch it a second time (I'm on about viewing number seven right now) the cleverness of the writing and direction becomes readily apparent, and you really have to applaud the intelligence that constructed such a film so seamlessly, and without having to beat you over the head with it like the average Hollywood film.

K-Horror has kind of replaced J-Horror as the new thing in the genre, although it's in danger of being over-taken itself. Over the last few years, Korean films have been caning the Japanese as Western audiences, jaded with Hollywood scares and seeking something more exotic, or simply something with a different sensibility, have been getting sick of spooky girls with long black hair who walk weird. But it's only a matter of time until there's a new thing, and K-Horror needs to keep ahead of that thing. That said, they're still ahead of the Hollywood re-make crowd (this film itself is getting the US re-make treatment even as I write this, as The Uninvited), in that the Korean film industry has original ideas and directors with vision.
Flawless. And that's both in terms of the picture quality and the director's use of colour, lighting, imagery and the camera generally to help tell the story. A sharp, crystalline picture – I can't see how this could be beat.
Always a difficult one to judge, given I don't speak Korean, but the soundtrack adds to the film in a number of ways – the score has a childlike fairy-tale kind of feel in some instances, highlighting the innocence of the girls, counterpointed with harsh electronic sounds when the weirdness comes to the fore. The 5.1 surround sound adds to the eeriness of the whole film – I was looking over my shoulder on more than one occasion.
Extra Features
First cab off the rank is a series of brief interviews with the actors – for god's sake DON'T watch these before the film – a massive plot spoiler is contained within.

Next is an interview with the director which is rendered almost baffling by the far too literal translation it receives in the subtitling – more idiomatic English, please! The original Korean theatrical trailer follows, admirably missing any plot spoilers. There's a rather pointless "behind the scenes/making of" sequence which basically just gives us some footage of people filming the movie with no real insight being given into the process or completed work. Some interview footage with the actors is included, but as I said, nothing much new or insightful is added. The rehearsal footage is interesting for those into the process of film-making, but hardly life-threatening if you miss it. And did we need to see the actors getting haircuts? I think not.

Rounding off the package is a sequence of doco footage about shooting the poster artwork. Again, hardly essential footage. Not the best extras package I've ever seen, but hardly the worst, either.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Haunting, poetic, beautiful and at times quite terrifying, A Tale of Two Sisters is that rarest of horror films, intelligent, visceral and scary. Equalled only by Kairo in that regard, it should be watched immediately by anyone who likes their horror cerebral and played deliberately low-key. You won't be disappointed. Unless, of course, you're an idiot.

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