A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003)
An atmospheric, psychological horror which offers a subtle and dread-building reimagining of an often-told Korean folktale
Restraint is sometimes a lesser used element in the horror genre, as the scares, jumps and gore are the currency which provides many of the big pay-outs.
Kim Jee-woon instead slowly builds the shuddersome atmosphere and cultivates the nerve-jangling through this film's duration. This more minimalistic approaches pays its dividend as we unpack the dynamics and effects of grief, fear and tragedy.
The story is a variation on a commonly told yarn as it is loosely based on the Korean folktale ‘Janghwa Hongryeon jeon’, which has had several film versions across various decades since 1924.
In Kim's version, inside a mental institution, teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) is being treated for shock and psychosis. She is then released, returning to her countryside family home to live with her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), their father (Kim Kap-soo) and their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah).
The tension between the sisters and their stepmother is instantly palpable and their shared hatred of her drives the sisters even closer together.
Su-mi has a nightmare featuring her deceased mother’s ghost, discovering the next day that Eun-joo was formerly their sick mother’s nurse.
The film then takes a supernatural turn, with visions of a ghost girl haunting the home, while conflict between Eun-joo and the sisters continues to fester and worsen. From here, the film’s surprising and often disorientating developments are best experienced first-hand.
It is a film which warrants close attention to fully immerse in that swelling tension and darkening atmosphere.
Alongside Kim’s superb direction are a range of brilliant performances and stunning cinematography.
Im and Moon combine to great effect to provide a believable sister combination, while Yum provides a truly maleficent stepmother.
Cinematographer Lee Mo-gae provides a flourish of masterful frames, a relationship with Director Kim that would go on to provide other fine films in The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010).
Do not expect to reach the film’s conclusion with every question answered. Some of the film’s more confusing element are left unresolved. It is about more than a neatly delivered parcel of narrative arcs. It is the thick smog of atmosphere that is built throughout that is the film’s focus instead.
After becoming the highest-grossing Korean horror ever at the time, including a release in US cinemas, it spawned another US remake of an Asian horror in 2009’s The Uninvited, a poor relation to Kim’s masterful original.
A Tale of Two Sisters was also an international awards success as its direction, cinematography and performances were all recognised.
Director Kim had already shown plenty of ability in his first two films – The Quiet Family (1998) and The Foul King (2000) – but announced himself as a filmmaker of serious pedigree with this dark, unique and suffocating view of bereavement and woe.