A Tale of Two Sisters is the second Korean film I’ve had the opportunity to view in the last few weeks, and so far I have to say that some interesting movies are making their way west from that divided nation.
Now, let me first note that normally a review of a horror film would be relegated to our illustrious Horror Guru. However, when I received this DVD for review, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. Was it horror? Was it a psychological thriller? Even after watching it, I think it skirts the edge a bit. You could argue that it’s a classic gothic horror, in tone with something like The Others; but at the same time it could be compared to the excellent classic, Gaslight, which is a thriller.
Trying to categorize films can be a challenge sometimes, especially when they appear to have several different elements. If you want a good example, try to tell me whether the television series, Lost, is science fiction or a drama.
Either way, this DVD was released before I could effectively pass it over to our Horror Guru, and I’m still not completely sold on the idea that this is really a “horror” movie.
Getting back to the film, A Tale of Two Sisters — which was released in Korea back in 2003 — is about a family that is struggling to rebuild its life after a terrible tragedy. What exactly that tragedy is remains a mystery for the majority of the film, but things get darker and creepier as we meet the two sisters.
The often absent father leaves them in the care of his new wife. The stepmother, however, is on medication and is clearly troubled. As strange things begin to happen around the house — like a mysterious ghost who haunts the two sisters — the stepmother becomes increasingly violent.
Yet things aren’t all as they seem, as several twists soon lead you to question everything you’ve seen and heard.
The twists and turns the story goes through in the second half do become apparent earlier, but when they happen I have to say, they’re pretty smart. Although I thought the film was a tad slower than it needed to be, I enjoyed it. It’s a smart suspense film, which is a rarity nowadays. There is also a certain level of ambiguity when the film concludes, which was interesting, if a little confusing at first.
I think the best comparison one could make would be to Sixth Sense. It has the same pacing and tone. Director Kim Jee-Woon does a great job handling the story, and the visuals are outstanding. There is an artistry here that is not overtaken by too many cheap tricks. Yes, there are a few moments like quick cuts and sudden music meant to scare you, but they are balanced with slow, methodical images that work beautifully to build tension and suspense.
The performances are also terrific. Su-jeong Lim as Su-mi is powerful, as is Jung-ah Yum, as the stepmother, Eun-joo. Of the entire cast, I think Jung-ah Yum had the most difficult time in the film, as she had to run the gamut of emotions. One moment she’s happy and polite, then switches almost instantly to methodical and evil.
A Tale of Two Sisters gets its United States release as a two-disc set. The first contains the film, as well as two audio commentaries. The first features the film’s director, cinematographer and lighting director. The second had the director with some of film’s stars. Both are in Korean, with English subtitles, and contain a lot of great details about the making of the film.
The second disc contains behind the scenes documentaries, interviews with the cast, and several deleted scenes. Each scene is accompanied with commentary from the director on why each was removed from the finished film. The commentary on some scenes is interesting, in that Kim Jee-Woon seems to question whether or not removing them really made the film better or not.
All of the behind the scenes stuff is in Korean, with English subtitles. This isn’t bad, exactly, but to be honest after a while you get kind of tired of reading the subtitles. I would have liked it if they had provided an English soundtrack on the documentaries, which would have at least provided a break.
Overall, I would say that A Tale of Two Sisters is a smart, terrific thriller. I have no doubt that there’ll be a poor American remake in your local theater’s very soon, but make sure you check out the original first.