A dark old house that holds its secrets close. Two sisters tormented by an evil stepmother and clinging to one another for comfort while their aloof, ineffectual father hides in his work and tries to ignore the mounting tension in his household. The onset of puberty, the first spilling of menstrual blood, is marked by terrifying visitations. If, as A Tale of Two Sisters unfolds, you’re put in mind of a fairy tale—albeit by way of Angela Carter or Tanith Lee—you wouldn’t be wrong; the story is in part based on a Korean folk tale that’s made it to film several times before in that country. And yet this haunting retelling has an utterly original feel about it. In part this is due to a set of storytelling beats (that is, the actual timing of major scare sequences and revelations) that differ from those we’re accustomed to in Western film, lending an even more disorienting feel to the already off-kilter proceedings; largely, though, it is the combined effects of cinematographer Lee Mogae’s lush photography, Lee Byeong-Woo’s evocative score, and director Kim Jee-Woon’s ability to coax affecting and almost unbearably poignant performances from young actresses Im Soo-jung (as Su-mi) and Moon Geun-young (as her younger sister Su-yeon).
The country home has all the darkness and claustrophobia of the deep woods that swallow up motherless children in fairy tales. We never leave its rooms and grounds, except at the beginning and end of the film (save for a harrowing nighttime journey in a car by secondary characters, in which the road around them as picked out by headlights seems to be leading off the edge of the world). Part ghost story, part psychological horror film, the plot embarks on a series of twists and turns which eventually descend into a set of horrific hallucinations that could have emerged merely as a convoluted mess. However, Kim never loses control of the story he’s telling or the human element at the heart of it all. Where far too many filmmakers seem not to trust the strength of the very medium in which they’ve chosen to work, burdening scenes with superfluous expository dialogue, he relies on the camera’s eye to convey the unspoken undercurrents that threaten to drown the family. From the sisters’ arrival, as they step from a light-drenched exterior to the brooding dark of the house and confront their stepmother’s insincere welcome with apprehension playing across their faces and hands clasped tight, to a dreadful vision of something dead, or worse, under the kitchen sink, to repetitive shots of two white pills in the palm of a hand—the stepmother’s, the sisters'—grimly dispensed over and over by the physician father to his disintegrating family, it is the carefully constructed images of even the most mundane proceedings that create a sense of nearly constant menace.
All of the characters are revealed to be haunted in one way or another, but the story belongs to the sisters. Kim demonstrates a remarkable empathy for adolescent girls in general, and the plight of his two young heroines in particular. This isn’t simply a story of madness, or family dysfunctions, or supernatural horror—it’s all of these things, and therein lies its depth and its richness; at its core, it is a profoundly sad tale of girlhood interrupted. A Tale of Two Sisters takes its place at the pinnacle in a recent flood of Asian horror films that put most American efforts to shame.
Lynda E. Rucker writes fiction and worries about earthquakes from her home in Portland, Oregon. Her stories have appeared in The Third Alternative and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and her latest will appear in the upcoming Supernatural Tales #10. You can visit her online at www.sff.net/people/lyndaerucker.
You must log in to post a comment.