A tense plot and a brooding atmosphere come together to make psychological horror perfection
“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, you see. And … and it follows you around like a ghost.”
Korean horror doesn’t really have the best reputation. The ones that come to mind – Wishing Stairs, Acacia, R-Point (ok that one’s actually decent) – are hardly cinematic masterpieces and, like J-Horror is tends to suffer from an oversaturation of similar ideas. That’s why it’s always good to see some famed directors try their hands at the genre as we’re often given a fresh new take on what would otherwise be rote. The Host was a contemporary look at kaiju films, while Thirst gave us a humanising vampire feature. So what does Kim Jee-Woon do with the haunted house genre? Let’s take a look.
A Tale of Two Sisters focuses on a teenage girl called Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), who begins the film treated for shock in an asylum. She is later brought back home to live with her father (Kim Kap-soo), stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah) and sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young). Still traumatised by their mother’s death, the sisters are close, but there appears to be coldness from the stepmother, who seems to be both overly cheerful and wickedly icy.
On the first night, Su-mi is visited by a ghost that she believes is her mother, and from there things don’t get any better. Su-yeon appears to be treated terribly, and is downright ignored by her father. As Su-mi tries to readjust to life in the house, she can’t escape the uncomfortable feelings, her distrust of the stepmother and the increasing dread and horror that builds within its walls.
This story has a lot going on, and it’s tough to recap without spoiling at least a couple of aspects of the movie, which is a shame because its twisty-turny nature is a huge part of the appeal. Kim Jee-woon builds a story packed with pieces of information that we don’t get until later in the film. It’s also one of the movie’s bigger flaws; that there seems to be more questions than answers can be a criticism, but frankly the murky waters are far more fun to explore. And in my opinion, there’s not much that a second viewing doesn’t clarify. That the final half hour slows the movie down to explain itself is necessary, but it does mean that there it tends to indulge melodrama and ignore any scares.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a horror, but it’s also in parts a drama and a psychological thriller. Kim Jee-woon and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae have fun mixing in styles – a staple of his throughout Kim’s entire filmography – making the overall ‘evil stepmother’ story seem both like a soap opera and a particularly dark fairytale..The whole thing is wrapped neatly within the horror genre, with an emphasis on slow burning tension and chills over jump scares and gore. Like the best ghost films, Two Sisters takes place almost entirely within the house, and Kim and Lee take full advantage of the building claustrophobia and the actor’s increasing desperation.
Which segues nicely to subject of the cast. Yum Jung-ah does a wonderful job and steals the show playing the stepmother, who shows roughly five different faces throughout the course of the movie. She’s kind and caring, and manipulative, and overly cheerful, and whatever else the current scene needs for them and Yum carries out these switches with excellence. Im Soo-jung does a lot of heavy lifting, as she’s in basically every scene, and pulls off the multi-layered troubled aspects of her character with great skill. That she’s playing a character ten years younger than her and is entirely convincing doing so is a testament to her acting chops. A picture like this needs a solid cast to be able to convey the wildly changing tones and these guys are great for the job.
Kim Jee-woon’s novel look at horror is reminiscent of something like Polanski’s Repulsion, which delved deeply into the psychology of its character and offers a more complex horror story than we might have been expecting. Kim knows this, too: Two Sisters opens in traditional horror movie style, with Su-mi in the asylum, hair over her eyes meant to remind us of Ringu or every other onryo movie. It’s a creepy scene that by all means should be setting up another film, but instead transitions into a calmer moment where Su-mi is in the car, on her way home. Kim sows the seeds for a cliché horror, but takes left turns whenever he can, and it’s this style that keeps the tension high, and the audience on their toes.
Filled to the brim with gorgeous production design, you’re immediately immersed in the world, whether you want to be or not, and this is a good thing. With colour and soundtrack used to establish the mood, you’re immediately right there with Su-mi and Su-yeon, which helps empathise with them early on. At the end of the day, A Tale of Two Sisters has a lot to offer. It gives us complex characters with questionable motivations, excellent atmosphere and cinematography, and a gripping story filled with creepy moments and a tonne of questions. It makes a nice change of pace from an otherwise boring horror scene, and is definitely worth recommending, provided you’re willing to help explain the endings.
Verdict: Dripping with atmosphere in every shot, A Tale of Two Sisters is creepy, haunting and damn entertaining
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Creep factor: 8/10
Excellently-shot reveals: 1, and what a shot it is
Rewatchability: A least once more
Connections to the fairy tale it’s based off: Like, none?
Ghost sightings: Hard to say.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Also known as: 장화, 홍련(Janghwa, Hongryeon; lit. “Rose Flower, Red Lotus)
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Writer: Kim Jee-woon
Im Soo-jung – Bae Su-mi
Moon Geun-young – Bae Su-yeon
Yum Jung-ah – Heo Eun-joo
Kim Kap-soo – Bae Moo-hyeon
Lee Seung-bi – Mi-hee
Lee Dae-yeon – Su-mi’s doctor
Park Mi-hyun – Mrs Bae, the dead mother
Woo Ki-hong – Sun-kyu