A Tale of Two Sisters

By Chris Hyde

December 2, 2003

Having eliminated Santa Claus, she now reaches for the bag o' plenty.

After the success of The Ring, the Hollywood attraction to Asian horror properties increased hugely. One example is a recent Korean psychological horror film -- A Tale of Two Sisters -- for which DreamWorks has already acquired remake rights.

How long Tinseltown will continue to rush to scarf up the latest scary pictures from the East and run them through the corporate whitewash process so that they'll play for an American audience is anyone's guess, but for now at least developing these projects remains a popular pastime for the studios. It's unfortunate that perhaps the most promising of these remakes -- Wes Craven's take on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's brilliant Kairo -- has now been killed due to its purported similarities to The Ring, but there's still a Tom Cruise-produced remake of the Pang Brothers' The Eye as well as a new version of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water starring former Dario Argento ingénue Jennifer Connelly coming to the megaplex in the future. Whether any of these attempts to de-obfuscate the slower and more ambiguous feel of the Asian horror film and translate it into popcorn fare for a typically more literal minded domestic audience will actually be successful remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that at present the studios are certainly keeping at least one eye fixed on the frightening films coming out of Korea, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong.

The story that forms the basis of A Tale of Two Sisters is a Korean folk legend that has been the raw material for five previous films, though here the director has altered the tale pretty substantially. Previously known for his comedies The Quiet Family and The Foul King, filmmaker Kim Jee-won is a noted horror film buff and first turned his directorial eye to the film of terror by directing the Korean segment of the 2002 Hong Kong horror anthology Three. Following the general success of that venture, he then decided to helm a film that is at least nominally horror in form, though the thrills ensconced in this one tend to be more of the psychological variety than any out and out supernatural phenomena.

The movie opens with two young sisters returning to their rural Korean abode after an absence whose nature is not at all delineated clearly. The pair appear to have an unusually close relationship, with the older sister fiercely guarding her seemingly hapless younger sibling from any potential harm. At first it appears that the threat that Su-mi (Lim Su-jeong, in a performance for which she was awarded the Best New Actress prize at the recent Korean Film Awards) is most worried about comes from the girls' apparently evil stepmother (Yeom Jeong-a). But, as the fractured narrative is pursued the nature of that threat is called into question -- with its ultimate reality becoming the central focus of the movie. The plot here really revolves around the true nature of the violent cloud of menace that seemingly hangs over the heads of this star- crossed family, and which character is responsible for the version of events that unfold onscreen remains in doubt until the final frames of the film.

Along the way there are plenty of intriguing moments to engage the audience and keep them guessing as to just what exactly is happening. Scenes of ghastly horror intersect with quietly pastoral moments that still somehow reflect the gut churning tension that constantly casts a pall over the family's day to day existence. The filmmaker also intentionally uses his setups to confuse and mislead the viewer, lending the proceedings an air of mystery that only adds to the film's attraction. One would suspect that in the Hollywood version to come much of what is befuddling in this Korean narrative will be replaced with straightforward plot explication, as American studios have always been loathe to allow their audiences the leeway to try to figure things out on their own. Here, however, the disorienting manner of storytelling allows the movie to unfurl in a restive light that reflects the discomfiting fog in which all the film's characters are enveloped. While some may find this approach slightly puzzling, the choice in style is truly what makes the movie such an appealing and mysterious stew of parts and the lack of lucidity is to these eyes one of the film's best characteristics.

Beyond the pleasing complications of its jumbled narrative style, A Tale of Two Sisters has a number of other enjoyable attributes that contribute to its overall success. The small cast of actors is uniformly excellent, with lead Im Soo-jung being especially noteworthy in the lead role. The film's direction is also steady throughout, with the capable hand of the filmmaker keeping the story interesting while at the same time occasionally alluding to recent films that must have served as his inspiration (an echo of Takashi Miike's Audition is pointedly obvious, for one). Additionally, special note should be made of the quality of the film's production design and cinematography, both of which combine to give the movie a gorgeous look that underlines the unsettling nature of the story in brilliant fashion.

With its eerie style, shattered storyline and top-notch dramatic performances, A Tale of Two Sisters can now confidently enter the pantheon of recent Asian horror triumphs-both monetarily and artistically. Unlike many of its uncanny celluloid brethren, this one is more of an intellectual enterprise that involves the cerebral machinations of its characters rather than a standard horror trope; yet this disturbing but engaging trip into the ominous Korean countryside where two strange sisters dwell still makes for fascinating viewing. Whether or not DreamWorks can find another hit here as they did when they had Gore Verbinski take on the popular Ring franchise, only time will tell. But while you're patiently waiting for that version to appear at your local twentyplex, why not try and seek out the original for comparison purposes at the very least? Films such as this one quite often have a very different look once they've passed through the pasteurizing process of the Hollywood widget factory, and so it might be well worth the trouble to at least get a taste of the first version before the studio execs transmute the sharp flavors of this authentic cinematic kim chi into a bland lump of American mall cheese.



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