Three Sisters (South Korea, 2020) [OAFF 2021]

Three Sisters is the latest feature from Lee Seung-won, a writer and director with a background in theatre. Much like his two previous films, Communication & Lies (2015) and especially Happy Bus Day (2017), it plies the territory of damaged people and broken family relations. The main difference with Three Sisters compared to Lee’s earlier works is that it is less abrasive due to its finely polished visual sheen and also its script which sneaks tragedy behind black comedy and a non-linear narrative.

The story focuses on three sisters, each of whom is a mother to a family but very different. Eldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) works as a florist. Cash-strapped, divorced, and dowdy, she is saddled with a deadbeat ex-husband and demanding daughter who both treat her like a doormat. Youngest sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is kind of a female Charles Bukowski whose hard drinking and mean attitude match her profession of playwright better than the man she married, a kind-hearted greengrocer who came complete with a level-headed teenage son. In a massive contrast to her siblings is the more glamorous middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri), a highly controlled woman who is a devout Christian living in the lap of luxury with her handsome university professor husband and their two children who are maybe a little fearful of their choir-master mother.

While the three sisters display a believable intimacy, we wonder how they can be related. Each occupies a different class and live in a different area, while their occupations, behavior, and outward appearance are poles apart. This is demonstrated in the first hour of the film which goes all in on quotidian details and finds comedy of the personality clash variety. By cutting between their perspectives, we see how the negative traits of the more maladjusted sisters sends them skittering from one social faux pas to another while Mi-yeon seems to remain stable and forbearing of others. It isn’t long before crises reveal the extent of their derangement.

Philandering husbands, errant children, and a cancer diagnosis drag out the drama and while the negative traits these women use in their struggle to cope continue to provoke laughter, the gap between what they intended to happen and the result is where tragedy lies. Mi-yeon’s exertion of control sends her veering into the sort of revenge that Old Testament God might appreciate as she physically punishes her husband’s perky mistress. Hee-sook’s subservient behavior reaches levels so pathetic, a masochist would be embarrassed. Mi-ok, the most comically outrageous of the three due to her drunkenness, desperately tries to change into something better for the sake of her family but only further alienates them.

As their travails play out, the film places a sort of deadline on its story with a family gathering for the father’s birthday. It also intersperses black-and-white flashbacks plus scenes where the sisters have conversations full of foreshadowing and subtext that helps us get to the heart of this tragicomic narrative. Most viewers will probably guess that they are all manifesting some trauma, but the full extent of it is only revealed in a final extended flashback which is handled so adroitly that it’s like ripping off a scab and looking at the raw wound of shared pasts.

The film was evidently intended as a showcase for the talents of its lead actors and they deliver deeply layered performances that bring out the complications in their characters. Model-turned-actress Jang, whose only other major credit is the 2015 action film Veteran, essays her slatternly character with major doses of anger and sadness that are balanced with desperate, so-real-it-hurts attempts at self-control. Kim, a veteran performer who has appeared in Lee’s two previous films, is entirely sympathetic as a woman who only knows how to survive by assuaging everyone through acquiescence and apologies. Moon gives a stellar performance of self-possession that masks an icy rage. Each actor convincingly portrays someone left exhibiting the indelible mark and yet struggling to overcome it.

While the comedy leavens the familial dilemmas, the moments where characters are suffering emotional anguish in their search for a way out of their torment is painfully realized by the performers who balance the light and dark aspects of this complicated story. The characters, settings and conflicts are easy to relate to the big reveal illustrates that their differences and personality faults stem from the same trauma. It never once feels like a movie made up of contrivances and leaves one hoping that these sisters can heal their broken minds.

Three Sisters was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 5 and will be shown again on March 14.