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.