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A Tale of Two Sisters

By Kim Hollis

December 16, 2004

In just a couple of minutes, evil stepmonster is going to go for the 'no wire hangers' routine.

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From writer/director Ji-woon Kim comes this haunting film about family and grief, all set in an atmosphere of eerie and chilling terror.

Su-Mi and Su-Yeon are sisters who have returned to their home in the countryside of Korea after suffering from an unspecified illness. Things begin to take a quick turn for the strange and creepy, as Su-Mi suffers from distressing nightmares and the girls' demented stepmother is the source of tremendous strain. Hanging back in the corners is the girls' father, whose emotional detachment is puzzling at best.

As the film progresses, we quickly learn that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. The house is clearly plagued by ghosts, but from where these ghosts derive and whom they truly haunt is the question at hand.

The movie unfolds at a languorous pace, which is well-suited to the ethereal tone. Many of the shots in the film are very deliberately designed, giving the viewer a real feel for the artistry of the director and cinematographer in particular. Color is used sparingly and for both impact and symbolism.

In regards to the telling of the story itself, time is fractured and the “narration” is not necessarily always reliable. In fact, the events of the film unfold in an almost confusing fashion; however, given the state of mind of some of the characters, this technique works quite well thematically. As much as Su-Mi and Su-Yeon display their bewilderment at the strange and absurd things happening around them, the audience is able to enter that mindset and be puzzled right along with them.

Although the film incorporates a number of elements from Asian horror films that preceded it (such as Ringu, The Eye and even Takashi Miike’s Audition), it does so in a way that feels mostly fresh and original. The only really derivative items of note are a few camera tricks that seem to have become more commonplace since the popularity of Ringu; additionally, the device wherein a female is obscured by keeping her long dark hair in front of her face is tending toward the trite side as well.

Those are very minor complaints, though. The small cast of actors in the film is outstanding. Most notable is Su-jeong Lim who takes on the critical and primary role of young Su-Mi. She’s a terrific young actress who really should have a bright future ahead of her. In her supporting role, Yeom Jeong-A as evil stepmother Eun-Joo evokes Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest – and I mean that in the darkest sense possible. A marvelous character actress, Jeong-A’s performance will rivet audiences and remain with them for days after the film slowly fades from mind.

For those looking for hardcore horror, A Tale of Two Sisters does have a couple of very specific scares and some lingering scenes that are very impacting. However, due to the slow pacing and dreamy nature of the story, it can’t be easily categorized as a film built for shocks. Instead, it’s more suited for fans of smart, psychologically-driven drama.

By the time the languid scenes reach the final unsettling climax, the viewer is finally able to piece together exactly how the film’s present connects to a surprising but logically inferred past. In fact, because of its splintered time approach and the elements of surprise that infuse the conclusion, it’s well worth watching multiple times to see if the pieces hold up as well as it seems on first impression.

A Tale of Two Sisters is an exceptional addition to the Asian horror catalog, and to Korean cinema in general.


     


 
 

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