A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003.
Directed by Kim Jee-woon.
Starring Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Kim Kap-su, and Yum Jung-ah.
A young girl returns home after being released from a mental institution to find that her troubles are far from over.
You have to hand it to South Korea as when it comes to putting genre movies together they do a proper job, with every production seemingly looking pristine, lit correctly and full of inventive and well-rendered special effects that could put a lot of ‘bigger’ western movies to shame. A Tale of Two Sisters is certainly a great looking movie with production values that look a lot higher than its budget but, given that it is Korea’s highest grossing horror movie to date, does the rest of it justify that position?
Originally released in 2003, A Tale of Two Sisters is based off a Korean folk tale – which would explain audience interest – and is about Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), a teenage girl who has just been released from a mental institution and has returned to her secluded family home with her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), her seemingly distant father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-su) and her stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah), who seems to be friendly at first but there is definitely an underlying atmosphere between the women.
And atmosphere is what A Tale of Two Sisters brings as Su-mi begins to have nightmares of her late mother’s ghost floating across her bedroom towards her (in a scene very reminiscent of TV version of The Woman in Black’s most famous moment) and other strange goings-on. She clearly doesn’t trust her stepmother, who is also behaving very bizarrely, and her father doesn’t seem to want to hear about how his new wife is upsetting his youngest daughter with her brutal treatment of her but whatever could it all mean?
Well, with a couple of decades of this type of storytelling and moviemaking to draw upon it might not take astute viewers very long to find out why these things are happening but this movie was made in 2003, when The Ring and The Grudge were dazzling mainstream western audiences and creepy girls with long black hair and loud jump scares were seen as a novelty and not a cliché. Based on that you can see why A Tale of Two Sisters joined the likes of Oldboy, The Host and Thirst in that decade’s run of influential Korean genre movies but therein lies the problem with it as looking at it with 2021 eyes is a very different experience; the long-haired creepy girls are no longer creepy, the kooky performances tip you off that things aren’t quite right with certain characters from the start and there is a very fine line between atmosphere and tedium which A Tale of Two Sisters straddles for most of its running time but its weight tends to lean towards the latter a bit too often. Plus, The Sixth Sense may have already been out for a few years when this movie was first released but audiences back then still weren’t quite trained in looking out for clues that give things away; that tactic doesn’t work now, even if this were a first viewing.
Yes, A Tale of Two Sisters is a slow-burn but it is a slow-burn whose payoff does not satisfy as the final act is basically one long flashback that throws in so many twists and piles on the plot that it becomes very hard to follow, which could have been the point if you thought the movie was going to lay it all out for you just to have it spin off in all directions but it is very unlikely, and after a very length 115 minutes of not a lot really happening and then everything happening at once it comes as something of a relief that everybody’s trauma is over – Su-mi’s and the audience’s.
Coming packed with audio commentaries, video essays, outtakes, analysis, interviews, trailers and a whole lot more this is certainly a bumper package and for fans of Korean genre cinema it is a tent-pole title presented in glorious HD that does look superbly clean and pops in all the right places, but for newbies or the curious A Tale of Two Sisters is just a bit too impenetrable, a bit too dull and perhaps a little too dated to be of the same entertainment value.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★