A Tale of Two Sisters is a sharp shift down and dark in momentum and tone, respectively, from 1999’s Hollywood fashion action sprint Shiri, which Justin discussed nearly two weeks back. Yes, we do have a nasty habit of forgetting to keep up with these marathons, but it’s made difficult when we start off on a less than compelling note. That shouldn’t keep us from moving forward in hopes of finding deeper pathos in the past decade’s new wave of Korean cinema, particularly given the significance of Kim Ji-Woon’s 2003 supernatural horror film. To this day it remains not only the highest grossing horror film in Korea, but also the first to be screened domestically in U.S. theaters.
That would be a simple statement of mass appeal, but the film itself has had an obvious effect on both South Korea’s domestic culture and its international culture. Watching it now may give viewers a sense of backwards deja vu, similar to the experience of watching The Departed and then experiencing Goodfellas for the first time, or watching Black Swan long before you ever see The Red Shoes. It’s a phenomenon of knowing that you’ve seen something similar before, but realizing that what you saw before came chronologically after, and quite likely in response to, the film you’re only catching up to now. With that vaguely in mind, it feels most significant to visit A Tale of Two Sisters now since it has a clear stylistically and analytically to Park Chan-wook’s Stoker.
Not so dissimilarly from Chan-wook’s film, A Tale of Two Sisters focuses on a girl, Su-mi who is recovering from an unexplained family trauma that has upset the framework of the family. In this case her mother has died, her father Moo-Hyeon coping by throwing himself into the arms of the closest woman to him, the nurse turned cruel stepmother Eun-joo. Also unique to Kim Ji-woon’s film is the titularly mentioned sister, Su-yeon, who is far more timid and defeated than her older sister. As they return home, they find the house more decrepit and haunting, quite literally seeing visions of a stranger stalking through their house. As the girls and the stepmother all find themselves confronted by these disturbing visions, it becomes clear this isn’t a contained psychological incident.
That’s about as much that’s worth giving away about the film to the uninitiated, but it should be conveyed in any explanations that there are plenty of mind-jumbling dynamic shifts in between, a regular motif of both psychological horror films and the Korean Wave in general. I wouldn’t say Park Chan-wook was influenced directly by Ji-woon, though both of them seem to be drawing from a similar inspiration. The difference between their works is that Chan-wook is often interested in the naturally perverse attractions of blood, be it in respects to family or murder. Ji-woon’s interest here is also familial, but delves deeper into how the layers of guilt extend beyond our own body and onto the identities of those surrounding us.
The film’s overly fanciful U.S. tagline, “Fairy Tales Have Never Been This Grimm”, hints at the Korean fairy tale the film is based on, The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon, a fact few domestic viewers, myself included, would be initially aware of. Apart from the simplest similarities of the conflict between the two girls and their evil step-mother, Ji-woon steers the tale in a more darkly subversive direction, but still retains the vibrancy of a fairy tale’s design elements. Lee Mo-Gae’s precocious lensing offers both tactful hints at the true nature of the character relationships and playful touches that emphasize vacant spaces with an uncanny intimacy, as if the characters are in a passionate love affair with their own isolation.
In some cases they literally are, the stepmother desperately seeking to fill the vacancy left by the father’s attempts at reconciliation with Su-Mi. The father is also shown often in isolation, seemingly avoiding his responsibilities as a parent, but his apparently pathetic confusion at these circumstances takes on a more understandable role later on. The most interesting relationship of the film, however, is between Su-Mi and the stepmother she despises, their seething contempt for one another building a more intriguing tether between them. The only apparent issue is that Su-yeon’s role is by necessity downsized, allowing her fewer shades of grey than her more mature counterparts. That may admittedly be the point, even her beige dresses lacking the bright colours Su-Mi defines her sense of self with.
Heading into this film with intent on catching onto and foiling the film’s twists and secrets feels like a stern and entirely unfitting way of approaching a film so committed to its gothic horror tendencies. You may even see them coming from the first minute, but that doesn’t dilute their innate psychoanalytic properties. A Tale of Two Sisters is less interested in the gut value of a twist than what that twist means to its characters, but more significantly to its intrinsic evaluation of grief and guilt paints us into the positions of victim, abuser and selfish bystander.
The film may not have quite the pulpy crossover appeal that a more showy extravaganza of violence would – Ji-woon would later get his share of giddy action with The Good, the Bad, The Weird and his dose of crazed violence in I Saw The Devil – but this spookster horror film did get an American remake of its own in The Uninvited (trailer). Quite indicatively of U.S. retreads, everything that’s captivating in implicitness about the Korean film is made grossly explicit in the American film. America has lost its knack for re-appropriation, but thankfully Ji-woon has not.