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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Tale of Two Sisters, A  


A Tale of Two Sisters

Reviewed by 1. Soh Yun-Huei 2. Sinnerman

Korean Title:Janghwa, Hongryeon
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writing Credits: Kim Ji-Woon
Cast: Kim Kap-su, Yum Jung-ah, Lim Su-jeong, Mun Geun-yeong
Genre: Horror
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Year Released: 2003
Runtime: 115 min

1. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: Rating: *** ½ (out of four stars)

Asian horror films have gotten a pretty bad rap over the past few years. The Ring probably started it all, but unfortunately the quality of Asian horror has steadily fallen. It is thus I watched A Tale of Two Sisters with a total lack of expectation – and found myself pleasantly surprised. In truth more a psychological thriller than a traditional horror film, director Kim Ji-woon has managed to create a film with a lot of atmosphere, some legitimately scary scenes, and one mind-bending story that is bound to polarize the audience – this is truly a movie that you’d either love or hate.

The film opens with sisters Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-yeong) returning to their home after seemingly being treated for a bout of illness. Their return isn’t warmly received, however, as their father Mu-hyun (Kim Kab-su) is cold and distant, whilst their stepmother Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-a) seems to be filled with paranoia and contempt for the siblings. The younger Su-yeon gets most of Eun-joo’s ill treatment, however, despite Su-mi trying to stand up for her.

Su-mi and Eun-joo gets more and more involved in trying to exact revenge on each other, with Su-yeon bearing most of the collateral damage, and as things come to a head, the sanctity of the house is broken. Other than the domestic quarrels and skeletons in the closet, there also seems to be a real ghost that’s haunting the house. The questions remain, however – who is the spirit that’s residing in the house, and why?

To reveal more of the plot would be spoiling the fun of the film, but suffice to say that A Tale of Two Sisters packs one of the most convoluted stories I have ever seen in the genre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but A Tale of Two Sisters does require the audience to pay a lot of attention to what transpires on screen, since it never spells out the plot in a clear and concise manner. It’s very likely that a cinemagoer who’s just watching the film in order to be scared would be left cold – although there are several creepy and scary moments, much of the film plays out as a (slightly warped) family drama. Kim Ji-woon makes very good use of moody music and slow, deliberate camerawork, creating an atmosphere that’s so thick you could almost cut it with a knife. A Tale of Two Sisters doesn’t get the heart thumping (much), but it does manage to creep one out and send a chill to the bones.

It also helps that the three actresses that play the main roles turn in pretty credible performances, particularly Im Soo-jung and Yeom Jeong-a, who both are given ample opportunities to scream and act hysterically in the film. It’s to their credit that they are very convincing in these moments, and at times it almost feels like the actresses have really gone mad themselves. However, the actresses also excel in the more quiet passages in the film, and Soo-jung’s performance in the denouement is particularly memorable. With a solid cast, a strong storyline, and above-par direction, it’s little wonder A Tale of Two Sisters managed to break box office records in South Korea, as well as convinced Dreamworks SKG to shell out US$2 million to purchase the rights of the film.

Final Word: Oozing with atmosphere, A Tale of Two Sisters bucks the trend of bad Asian horror films, and is certainly one of the best in the genre yet.


2. Review by Sinnerman

A Tale of Two Sisters is not only one of the best horror flick this year. In my humble opinion, it has genre-transcended into becoming one of the best films of 2003. Considering the very.strong competition this year that sure was no mean feat there.

I must say its ability to move was second only to Talk to Her, it aesthetic achievement was second only to Cypher and its editorial virtuosity was second only to City of God. As for its ability to scare and unnerve? It has no equal. On the whole, this flick is actually second to none and has very much segued into a whole new league of its own.

To the discerning fans out there, the most succinct description of this flick would be that it’s an Eve's Bayou with BOO! For shorn of its horror stylistics, this film belongs in a select class of films which emphatically captured the genesis of familial dysfunction, and a lucid yet meditative study on the maelstrom that is our human emotions.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

i) It turns out, all along, the father was talking on the phone with just one person throughout the flick, the real "stepmother."

Thinking about it, it must have been hard on the father, since he alone had to deal with her daughter in that house, and no one else.

ii) I still stick to my interpretation that this flick had two evils, the inner demons tormenting the living and the pent-up "dirty spirits" haunting the dead (and living).

A vital (and very eerie) clue that supported my notion that psychoanalysis alone might not explain the flick completely is with a crucial closing scene in that "hammered" up room (with the closet).

As the real, sane "stepmother" stepped into that room and unveiled the curtain on one side of the wall, there were four picture-less photo frames hung there. That might symbolize that the house intended to torment/ possess/ imprison the "souls/ sanity/ spirits/ guilty conscience etc." of the four women; those dead by dawn(younger sister and mother), and those alive with guilt (Sumi and the stepmother).

All four women were inextricably linked to that excruciating accident. So supernaturally, the laws of the spiritual unknown might dictate that their (mis)fortunes also be forever tied together, from that ill-fated day on.

Admittedly, my unscientific interpretation stemmed from my own superstitious self. But I always felt the fascination with mysticism and paranormality has always been part and parcel of the Asian psyche. So I see nothing wrong with a partial manifestation of this cultural quirk in the flick, especially since it’s a Korean/ Asian one.