This article was written By Colleen Wanglund on 05 Mar 2012, and is filed under Reviews.

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About Colleen Wanglund

Colleen Wanglund is a metalhead, gorehound, book junkie and major Asian horror fan. You can find this spitfire ginger's in her native New York.

A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea, 2003)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, the brilliant director behind The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010).  The movie opens with a young woman being questioned by a doctor in a sterile setting; the girl is unresponsive except when she sees a picture of her family.  Next, the camera cuts to a man, Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-su) and his two teenage daughters arriving at their secluded beach house.  Their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah) has been waiting for them all, but it’s clear that she and the girls don’t get along.  Su-mi (Lim Su-jeong) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) go to their rooms to settle in.  Su-mi finds an identical book and journal in her desk that she has removed from her suitcase and then she finds identical clothes hanging in the wardrobe. She assumes it’s her stepmother intentionally being cruel.  The family’s first dinner together is uncomfortable, although Moo-hyeon seems oblivious to the discomfort.  We also see that the girls’ father doesn’t sleep in the same room as Eun-joo.  Not long after the girls’ arrival, strange things begin happening around them.  Su-mi is having nightmares, Su-yeon is hearing noises and we have an appearance by a long-haired ghost (the girls’ missing mother, perhaps?).  Again, there aren’t many ghosts in this movie, although you’re now left wondering if the house is haunted.  There’s a weird and dinner party between Eun-joo, Moo-hyeon, Eun-joo’s brother and his wife.  Eun-joo is going on about supposedly funny stories but is then told that her brother doesn’t remember any of the incidents she’s talking about.  It doesn’t go well and Eun-joo looks like she may be starting to crack.  The dinner party ends abruptly when the brother’s wife starts choking and has a seizure.  It is a scene that is very uncomfortable for the viewer as well as the participants.

It’s clear from the beginning that Eun-joo harbors some hostility toward the girls.  She becomes angry when she sees the girls have found some old photos of their mom and other items that were put into storage.   When Eun-joo later wakes Su-yeon she discovers that her beloved bird is dead and the body is in the girl’s bed.  Eun-joo becomes enraged and physically attacks Su-yeon, ultimately locking her in a wardrobe, sending Su-yeon into hysterics.  Su-mi finds her and calms her down.  Su-mi is confronted by her father asking her why she’s been acting so strange since coming home; she tells him Eun-joo is making their lives hell.  Her father tells her something that neither girl was prepared to hear. In fact, throughout most of the movie Moo-hyeon seems lost and unsure of what to do about the situation around him.  Later on, Su-mi approaches her stepmother and they get violent with each other and Su-mi gets knocked out.   It looks as if Eun-joo has finally lost her mind and is going to kill Su-mi but her dad arrives home.  This is where the whole story takes a major turn and we see what’s really going on.

This is in fact one of my favorite horror films. A Tale of Two Sisters has great writing and fantastic directing.  You watch a family completely disintegrating right in front of you, but not because of the reasons we see on the surface.  There’s a lot more going on than what meets the eye.  It’s a complex story that shows very well what can make a person break emotionally and mentally. There are twists to the story and plenty of unpredictability which make for great storytelling when used properly.  The viewer will wonder for most of the film if what’s happening is supernatural or psychological.  There are clues throughout, if you know what you are looking for.  And the ambiguity until the big revelation is part of what makes this film so memorable.

There are other strange things going on in Sisters, beyond those out in the open.  For one, there are the circumstances of the girls’ mother.  We don’t see her, or the circumstances of her absence.  Another odd circumstance is the fact that all three women getting their period at exactly the same time.  Yes, it has happened where multiple women living together will have cycles that line up, but exactly down to the day?  Nope.  And then, of course is the question of just who needs to be institutionalized?  Is it the girls, who clearly were, or is it the step-mother who is slowly becoming unhinged?  The overall tone is a somber one and draws the viewer into this very melancholy and tension-filled story.

I’ve seen Sisters over a half dozen times and will continue to watch when I see it’s on.  There’s a scene where Eun-joo bends to the floor of the kitchen and picks up a hairclip when a hand darts out from under the sink and grabs Eun-joo’s wrist.  I still jump every time I watch that scene even though I know it’s coming.  A Tale of Two Sisters is inspired by an ancient Korean folk tale titled “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” that has been adapted into films at least a half-dozen times. It is also one of the highest-grossing Korean horror films.  It won the Best Picture award at the International Fantasy Film Awards in 2004 and was the first Korean horror movie to be screened in America, though in a limited release. It was made into an American remake in 2009 called The Uninvited, which I recommend avoiding. A Tale of Two Sisters is definitely a movie worth seeing.  It is available in the United States through Tartan Video with a runtime of 115 minutes.

Related posts:

Teke Teke (2009)
Reincarnation (Japan, 2005)
Crossroads (Japan, 1928)

One Comment

  1. […] A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)—written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, this is a weird story about two sisters, one of whom was recently released from a mental institution.  Their father is at a loss as to what to do about the girls and the obvious animosity between them and their step-mother.  Step-mom’s own mental status quickly becomes called into question.  There is little gore, but Sisters still manages to be a frightening movie with some very cool twists.   Phone (2002)—this is Ahn Byeong-ki’s twisted take on an urban legend.  A reporter investigating a child sex ring goes into temporary hiding, only to have herself and her family stalked by a ghost who is out for blood.  Love, obsession, illicit sex, pedophilia, jealousy, revenge and one hell of a creepy possessed little girl make Phone a movie to watch.   I Saw the Devil (2010)—another one directed by Kim Ji-woon, Devil stars the amazing Choi Min-sik as a serial killer being stalked and tortured by the fiancé of one of his most recent victims.  The fiancé finds the serial killer, but lets him go, repeatedly, after inflicting some kind of pain.  It is a cat and mouse game that doesn’t go as intended.  It ultimately begs the question “what makes a psycho?” as the fiancé seems to become like the killer he seeks revenge on.   Oldboy (2003)—while some may not consider Park Chan-wook’s movie as horror, what happens in Oldboy is pretty horrifying.  Based on the manga by Nobuaki Minegishi, Choi Min-sik stars as a man imprisoned for fifteen years in a private prison with no idea why.  After his release he finds the man responsible and discovers the reason for losing fifteen years of his life.  Unfortunately the punishment hasn’t ended with his release.  This is a wonderfully twisted movie with some very disturbing subject matter.   Death Bell (2008)—imagine having to sit for the most difficult exams in the school year but instead of advancement your reward is that a fellow classmate isn’t murdered.  That is the premise of Death Bell, where being an elite student is probably not the best thing.  Written and directed by Yoon Hong-seung, the film puts the lives of students in danger and a disembodied voice tells the class that a student will die for every question they get wrong.  Talk about pressure! […]

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