A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)

Directed By: Ji-woon Kim
Written By: Ji-woon Kim
Starring: Su-jeong Lim
  Geun-Young Moon
  Kap-su Kim
  Jung-ah Yum
A Tale Of Two Sisters

A Tale of Two Sisters (also known as Janghwa, Hongreyon) is, simply put, a wonderful film. Loosely based on an old Korean folk tale, it follows the story of two sisters, Su-mi and Su-yeon, who arrive home after being discharged from a psychiatric hospital to stay with their father and his new wife, Eun-Joo. Although greeted with forced affection, the animosity between Su-mi and Eun-joo is clear, and when Su-mi discovers bruises on her sister’s wrists, the confrontation between daughter and stepmother escalates. On top of this, with the appearance of ghostly presences around the house, we begin to wonder how much of it is actually occurring and how much is merely playing out in Su-mi’s mind.

Despite only being his second foray into horror, Kim Ji-woon has created a marvellous film that is simultaneously beautiful, terrifying, haunting, and (at first watch) immensely bewildering.

Aesthetically, it’s practically perfection. Kim, along with cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, have imbued the camera with almost a life of its own, as it creeps steadily around the shadow-filled house, which, coupled with the low-level, high-contrast lighting makes for a surprisingly claustrophobic atmosphere. In fact, it’s a mere five minutes into the film that we get one of our last external shots, echoing cannily the feeling of entrapment the sisters must feel after re-entering their home.

The duality of beauty and terror even seeps into the music, too. Lee Byung-woo, the film’s composer, has created a number wonderfully melancholic, highly memorable themes that Kim weaves skilfully alongside long periods of intense silence and sharp, jarring violin stabs.

It is the actors, however, that truly shine; all have been cast perfectly and play their parts practically without fault. You cannot help but feel compassion for the (appropriately) doe-eyed Su-yeon (Moon Geun-Young) the fiery, passionate Su-mi (Lim Su-jeong), and their rather haggard, taciturn father (Kim Kap-su); and Yum Jung-ah is wonderfully icy as the ‘wicked stepmother’.

It’s very easy to criticise films such as this with the hindsight of the plethora of mass-produced mainstream horror movies; in A Tale of Two Sisters, although the plot may seem a little derivative, it’s hard to make an argument for it; this film is, after all, based on a centuries-old folk tale. Similarly, one could pick up on a number of fairly generic cinematic tricks used in this film that various Western horror-hacks have also implemented to death in the past decade or so to try and keep their audiences entertained, but this is very easy to say with hindsight. Of course, I’m not suggesting that A Tale of Two Sisters pioneered such tricks, but because they’re executed so damned well, you just don’t care. A simple example comes when Eun-joo reaches slowly for a hairclip sitting innocuously on the kitchen floor. What would be over in seconds in your average Hollywood horror ends up taking practically an age under Kim’s direction. As her hand stretches ever-so-slowly to the hairclip, you become painfully aware of the dark recess underneath the cabinet nearby, and by directing it so Kim achieves the apotheosis of jump scares; one that makes you jump despite the fact you know it’s coming.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a film in which a great deal of time and effort has been poured, and this is evident in every single frame of the movie. Despite lagging a little here and there, the actors’ performances are engaging enough to drag you tenaciously into their slowly unravelling world and not let go until the film’s breathtaking conclusion.


Rating: ★★★★★★★★½☆

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