by Ji-woon Kim, 2003, 115 min. starring Kim Kap-su, Yum Jung-a,
Lim Su-jeong and Moon Geun-yeong.
Korea has given us some pretty nifty
horror films. Okay, so maybe the one that stands out is the brilliant
and everything else is either mediocre or just okay. Personally,
I think Nightmare is a pretty good scare.
But I digress.
Sadly, up until recently it was considered that
both Korea and Hong Kong were lagging behind in the genre: Korea
still has yet to really stake their claim on the horror market,
unlike the HK crossover hit The
Eye. They still don't have the instant classic that Japan has
with Ring, despite trying
very hard with films like Wishing Stairs, The Uninvited,
and more recently Acacia. Certainly those recent releases
showed a marked improvement, after the almost purely derivative
teen-chiller Phone stirred
up renewed interest among Korean filmmakers and cineastes.
Up until now, something was still oddly missing
from all these films, which failed to make them stick in an audience's
memory: too much emphasis was given to elements borrowed awkwardly
from popular Japanese horror flicks, with nothing much original
added along the line.
However, no other Korean film
stands out in my memory more than the brilliant A Tale Of Two
Sisters (aka Janghwa, Hongryeon). Based in part on
a traditional Korean folk tale called Janghwa and Hongryeon,
directed by Kim Ji-woon (who also wrote and directed The Quiet
Family, on which Takashi Miike's movie The Happiness of
the Katakuris is based), and now optioned for a US remake by
DreamWorks, A Tale of Two Sisters was released in 2003
to great critical and public acclaim.
Okay, maybe calling it brilliant is an
overstatement, but for me, this is a film the likes of which I have
never seen before. Essentially a drama, with horrifying menace thrown
in for good measure – not to mention a mind-boggling mystery
– A Tale of Two Sisters not only succeeds in scaring
you, but at the same time reaches to some deep-seated longing or
loneliness in your heart. This movie positively demands
that the viewer immerses themselves emotionally in the melancholy
and tense air of dread of the tale. Violent and unnerving, at the
same time beautiful and touching, this is perhaps a horror movie
unlike any other.
"You want to forget
something, totally wipe it from your mind… but you can't.
It follows you around like a ghost."
In a stark white hospital room, a doctor speaks
to one of his patients - a young girl whose hair obscures her face.
She is questioned about a seemingly violent incident that happened
to her and her family. She replies only with silence. The doctor
continues to probe her with questions…
In another time frame, a car travels down a provincial
road on its way to an old, yet well-taken care of house. A man steps
out of the car, the father of two girls. And here we meet the two
sisters of our story - Bae Su-mi (played exquisitely by Lim Su-jeong),
the elder sister, and Bae Su-yeon, the younger (Moon Geun-yeong),
come home to live after a stay at a hospital to "get well".
Once the girls arrive, evil stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah, last
seen in Tell Me Something) is all sweet and accommodating
and motherly, much to the chagrin of the girls. Clearly, there’s
no family love felt here.
At dinner, tension and rivalry are rampant... and
so is insanity. The turn of events is not a happy one: in fact,
the girls' father, Bae Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-su) has to give two pills
to Eun-joo after the meal. Later that night, strange things start
happening in the house. Su-yeon experiences creaking floorboards,
doors opening by themselves, hands appearing out of nowhere... this
all prompts her to crawl into her big sister's bed. Su-mi investigates,
and finds her father asleep on the couch instead of in bed with
Eun-joo. Su-mi fixes his blanket, only to be interrupted by Eun-joo,
and the conversation turns into a massive argument between the two.
Dejected, Su-mi goes back to bed and tells Su-yeon it was simply
their wicked stepmom playing tricks on her.
That morning, after a disturbing dream, Su-mi wakes
up to a sun-drenched room, ready to face the day. Only she discovers
she's not truly awake, but is in fact still dreaming, and this nightmare
is a lot scarier than the previous one…
She wakes up for real this time, and finds blood
on her fingers. She sees that Su-yeon has started her period, and
goes over to the master bathroom to retrieve some towels. Eun-joo
sees her there and asks what she's up to. Su-mi tells her that her
sister has begun her period, to which Eun-joo scoffs and tells Su-mi
it's a spooky coincidence that she, too, has started her period
only that morning. Su-mi decides that's too much information and
rushes off, only to stop and realize that she has also started her
period at the same time.
That afternoon, Su-mi decides to do some reminiscing
and rummages through some of her late mother’s old stuff.
Here, she finds shoes, purses, and a bunch of pictures that bring
a smile to her face. However, the smile quickly fades as she sees
the inclusion of Eun-joo in some of the photos. She angrily tosses
them back into the box just as Su-yeon walks in. The sisters share
memories and stories about their dead mother amidst all her old
belongings, until Su-mi notices marks on Su-yeon's arms. She asks
her about them, forcing her to admit that it was their stepmom who
did it. Su-yeon, afraid as she seems of her stepmom’s wrath,
admits to nothing.
Su-mi wanders down to the dining room where Eun-joo
is having tea and confronts her about the marks, which she admits
to giving Su-yeon as a punishment. A row breaks out, which the father
upstairs overhears. Coming down, he sees Su-mi alone, in tears,
yet seething still. Su-mi refuses to tell him what's been happening,
cutting him out of the events taking place around him.
That night, Sun-kyu, brother to Eun-joo’s
husband arrives with his wife. However, during dinner, it becomes
apparent that it's not just Su-mi who's experiencing strange paranormal
events while in the house - before things take a very swift turn
for the worse...
In an attempt to have everything explained, the
last 40 minutes of the movie shifts from exciting to humdrum, from
frightening to dramatic, to the extent that you really can't seem
to place your feelings in the right context. It builds very slowly
to a climax, which the film's ending suffers from; you get neither
an explosive revelation nor a jarring conclusion. Instead, you get
a well-explained, neat, and safe ending. That's not to say the movie
doesn't leave anything for the viewer to think about, though. In
fact, a lot of key elements go unanswered. A lot of this is tied
into the major plot points and twists in the film so that it's difficult
to question or discuss here without the risk of spoilers. Suffice
to say, some of the plot twists are inconsistent, and a lot of the
scares don't quite add up.
Aside from that, I have nothing but praise for every
other aspect of this movie. Starting with the production design
- never have I seen a horror movie use such brilliant colours to
establish mood. Everything is bright in this film – and you
would think that would be a detriment to the terror. On the contrary,
the use of colour brings out a sort of dream-like, almost fairy-tale
quality that's juxtaposed by the darkness of the subject. And it's
not an easy subject to turn into a straightforward horror movie.
Familial rivalry has only really been explored to this sort of depth
within a horror context in V.C. Andrews’ Flowers In The
Attic. But that was a human horror story, with nothing supernatural
about it. Here, the ghosts and goblins are thrown in but don't distract
you from the core story. If anything, they add even more flavour,
depth and substance to the human drama.
Impressive too are the performances - all the actors
are brilliant in their characterisations. They hold their own against
each other and never seem to fall out of character once. Lim Su-jeong
(Su-mi) and Yum Jung-ah (Eun-joo) are both utterly sublime in their
portrayals of warring female factions. Striking a balance between
hate and fear is never easy for an actor, yet these two do it effortlessly.
Clearly one of the best-made Korean films to date,
A Tale of Two Sisters is a title that all Asian horror
aficionados should include in their collection. An excellent quality,
visually stunning, brilliantly acted and directed piece that begs
to be admired.
Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 9/10
Special FX: 10/10 - only one bit of CGI needed, and beautifully
crafted, at that
Creepy Wall Coverings: 10/10 - visit Laura
Ashley if you too would like to decorate your very own haunted
Inexplicable Spooky Goings-On: I counted at least 3 proper manifestations
Korean Arts & Crafts Deco Gothique Horror: it's a whole new
genre! Go Ji-woon Kim! :-D
Su-mi Vs. Eun-joo: I wouldn't have any money on that grudge
Films in a Similar Style: Nope - there aren't any. Some elements
from Ring, possibly a bit
of Memento Mori...
or maybe The Shining! Stunningly unique
Discuss this movie here at the Snowblood Apple Forums!
A Tale Of Two Sisters Wallpaper
please note: the actual papers do not have the Snowblood Apple
logo on them.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600]
Wallpaper credit: Larry D Burns, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
official Korean site. Not high on content, as it's one of those
mildly irritating 'storytelling' Flash sites, but pretty, nonetheless
- very comprehensive, indepth review including DreamWorks remake
information and notes concerning DVD quality, extras, lots of images
- KFCC's usual superior brand of reviewing, with plenty of pictures
but severe spoiler warning: there are several posted (marked) in
the body of the review
- Sancho's Akatomy delivers another excellent review, with good
pictures and some slightly more obscure images [French only]
- interesting insights and comments made by the director, Kim Ji-Woon
- Animated Flash e-cards for the movie
- posters and press photos