Korean Movie Review: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Saturday, August 11, 2018


It's not ideal to start a movie when you already know what the final twist is. Unfortunately,  for me that was exactly the case with Kim Jee Woon's critically-acclaimed horror drama A Tale of Two Sisters (2003). 

Thanks to the Hollywood remake machine I sadly never got to see the film in it's full authentic glory. That is, before I even knew the Korean film existed I watched The Uninvited (2009), an okay-ish but rather simplified remake of the Asian horror classic that also included the major twist from the original story. Despite essentially having spoiled the ending for myself beforehand, I nevertheless watched the Korean original when I first got the chance, though it is only upon a recent rewatch that I've finally decided to write a review for it.

Based on a Joseon Dynasty era folktale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, the movie introduces us to Soo Mi (Im Soo Jung), who returns home with her sister Soo Yeon (Moon Geun Young) after having been institutionalized in a mental hospital. While their father Moo Hyun (Kim Gap Soo) spends most of his time in the home office, the sisters are left to deal with their hysterical stepmother Eun Joo (Yum Jung Ah) and the mysterious presence that seems to be haunting the house.

From the very beginning, the odd behaviour of all the family members and the unresolved tensions between them makes us, the viewer, feel anxious and uneasy. We can tell there's more going on but the film keeps us in the dark, making it hard for us to tell what is real and what is not. The characters seem to act irrationally at times, urging us to question if we are actually seeing things the same way they do.

Adding to the eerie uncertainty is the house itself, which seems to hide even more secrets behind heavily patterned wallpaper and under creaky wooden floorboards. Cinematography also highlights the red and pink tones as if to foreshadow the dramatic, bloody outcome of the tale. Aside from the visual language, the film also relies heavily on tension-building musical cues that keep the viewer on edge even if the actual hauntings in the film are rather tame. Differently from the Hollywood remake, A Tale of Two Sisters focuses more on creating a consistently creepy atmosphere in which nearly everything seems unsettling, rather than on formulaic scares which to occasionally startle the audience with.

As we follow the story mostly from the perspective of Soo Mi, we also come to rely on her interpretation of things. Her hostility towards her unhinged stepmother seems justified because after all she is trying to protect her sister from being harassed. Then the tale pulls the rug from under us—Soo Yeon is actually dead, a revelation which hints that perhaps Soo Mi's point of view is not to be trusted. This is the first part of the two-fold twist that ends up flipping our perspective. While attentive viewers might figure out that Soo Yeon is dead by the way her father never addresses or acknowledges her, the second part of the twist is much less obvious.

When the movie reaches its culmination with Soo Mi confronting her stepmother and desperately trying to save her sister, who we now know is already dead, the second part of the mystery is revealed. All this time, the only people in the house were Soo Mi and her father, while both Soo Yeon and Eun Joo are manifestations of Soo Mi's dissociative identity disorder. When we later meet the real Eun Joo after Soo Mi is hospitalized, she's unlike the evil stepmother in Soo Mi's mind. With that, the twist successfully changes our perception of what's going on in the story and makes us want to rewind and rewatch from the beginning to catch the all the clues hinting at the outcome.

The movie concludes the tale by showing us what happened on the day that Soo Yeon died. Having discovered her sickly mother had hanged herself in the closet, Soo Yeon became trapped under its weight when trying to revive her. While Eun Joo (a nurse at the time) discovers the scene, she seemingly turns back to get help but is stopped on the way by Soo Mi, who angrily exchanges words with her. Out of resentment, Eun Joo decides not to reveal what happened and tells Soo Mi she'll regret this day forever, revealing that the conflict between stepmother and stepdaughter was what ended up sealing Soo Yeon's fate.

While the film implies that Eun Joo is killed in the house by Soo Yeon's vengeful ghost, it is not clear whether it truly happened or if it was again part of Soo Mi's imagination. The ghostly activity is in fact never proven and most viewers seem to be divided on that matter. Some believe the ghosts were only in Soo Mi's imagination, caused by either her declining mental state or her medication, while others think the house really was haunted, which would explain Eun Joo's demise at the end. The movie itself leaves things up for debate, adding to the load of unanswered questions we're left by the end.

Ultimately, what makes A Tale of Two Sisters stand out is its impeccable use of visual language to establish underlying tension and fear of the unknown. Since it is most of all psychological horror and not the gory kind, the scares are admittedly few and sparse but it does not mean the film isn't compelling in other terms. Its additional strengths lie in the eerie atmosphere, sorrowful tone and twisty narrative. It can admittedly be a challenging watch as nothing is entirely explained and viewer is left to make their own conclusions of the story and characters. While it may put off some viewers, it can add to the film's appeal for others.

Unfortunately, I can hardly judge the movie fairly because having been aware of the twist beforehand, the narrative never had the impact on me the way it was meant to have. While this doesn't by any means render the rest of the film worthless, as multiple viewings are rather necessary to fully grasp what is going on in the story, it made the experience considerably different from what it could have been. But twist or no twist, I still find A Tale of Two Sisters to be a fascinating horror drama that challenges the viewer to think along and question the viewpoint they've been so kindly presented.

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