Yeom Jeong-A as Eun-Joo
Im Soo-Jung as Su-Mi
Moon Geun-Young as Su-Yeon
Kim Kab-Su as Mu-Hyun
Mixing classic horror in the vein of Hitchcock, Argento and Miike with creepy psychological drama, A Tale of Two Sisters is the scariest film in years!
Su-Mi (Im Soo-Jung) and her younger sister Su-Yeon have returned home after an incident that had them sent away by their father. Their young stepmother Eun-Joo (Yeom Jeong-A), still holding a grudge about what happened, resumes her torture of the younger sister, much to the ire of Su-Mi, who has been having horrible visions on top of these problems. Ultimately, the conflict between Su-Mi and her stepmother can only escalate into a final violent confrontation.
The Renaissance of Asian horror continues, this time crossing over to nearby Korea where the influence of Japanese hits like Ringu and Ju-On has been used to create a very different take on the classic haunted house story by director Kim Jee-Woon. This one is based on a Korean folktale called “Red Flower, Red Lotus” which has been filmed a number of times dating back to 1924, but is given a modern flavor in Kim’s film.
On top of the types of scares usually found in horror movies, Kim instills a deeply disturbing psychological terror revolving around the dysfunctional relationship between two young girls and their stepmother. We don’t learn what happened to the girls’ mother or why they were institutionalized, but we have to assume that the stepmother hates the girls since they refuse to accept her as their new mother. It’s pretty obvious that she’s quite deranged from the minute we meet her and something not quite right must have happened in the house that keeps the girls’ father quiet and unable to intercede in his wife’s tortures on his daughters. Things only get worse when the stepmother finds her beloved pet bird dead in the younger daughter’s bed, sending her on an uncontrollable rampage. The conflict between the eldest daughter and her stepmother is exemplified by two stunning performances that one couldn’t imagine any American actress pulling off so effectively.
The nature of the story puts it in the vein of classic thrillers like Mommy Dearest and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, but that’s only one level of the horror. If the tension in the household wasn’t bad enough, the appearance of horrifying specters creeping out of the closets and from under the kitchen sink only makes things even crazier. Sure, some may find elements familiar from other Asian horror films-the static-filled television of Ringu, the marionette like ghosts of Ju-On – but the film seems to owe more to artier ghost films from Spain like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone or Amenabar’s The Others.
What differentiates A Tale of Two Sisters from those other ghosts movies is that it has a very distinctive look and feel. Instead of a house obscured by shadows, much of the story takes place outside in the daylight or in the brightly lit house interiors as the sunlight bounces off the colorful floral wallpaper. The whole film is beautifully shot, with cinematography on par with some of Korea’s artier filmmakers, which just creates an eerier background for the horror that ensues, especially when Kim transposes this beauty with disturbing images that wouldn’t be too far removed from horrormeisters like Dario Argento, Takashi Miike or even early David Lynch.
When the stepmother drags a body-shaped sack through the house leaving a gory slug-like trail of blood, it’s hard not to feel a bit queasy, but your skin really crawls when the elder daughter decides that she just has to look inside that bag. In another scene, an embarrassing dinner table story from the stepmother sends her dinner guest into unexpected spasms on the floor, something so shocking that it leaves you wondering where things could possibly go from there. No matter how much you think you may know what is going on or what may happen next, you’re likely to be very wrong, and a number of shocking back-to-back twists makes the multiple false endings worthwhile.
Either way, horror fans and Asian cinephiles should be absolutely thrilled with what Kim Jee-Woon has accomplished with this groundbreaking film, and it’s well worth seeking out by those not too faint of heart.
A Tale of Two Sisters has already opened in a couple cities, but it opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.