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Review © Larry D Burns, 2004.

Directed 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 Whispering Corridors 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.

Synopsis

"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.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 9/10
Chills: 9/10
Violence: 8/10
Sex: 0/10
Special FX: 10/10 - only one bit of CGI needed, and beautifully crafted, at that
Soundtrack: 9/10
Creepy Wall Coverings: 10/10 - visit Laura Ashley if you too would like to decorate your very own haunted house stylishly
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 battle!
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

***ESSENTIAL!***

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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] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Larry D Burns, 2004


Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Kim Ji-woon
Lim Su-jeong
Yum Jung-ah
Moon Geun-yeong
Kim Kap-su

Links

http://www.twosisters.co.kr/- official Korean site. Not high on content, as it's one of those mildly irritating 'storytelling' Flash sites, but pretty, nonetheless [Korean only]
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=6085 - very comprehensive, indepth review including DreamWorks remake information and notes concerning DVD quality, extras, lots of images etc
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/horror/taleoftwosisters/taleoftwosisters.html - 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
http://www.sanchodoesasia.com/sdk/sdk_tale_of_two_sisters.php - Sancho's Akatomy delivers another excellent review, with good pictures and some slightly more obscure images [French only]
http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2003/08/15/2003063883 - interesting insights and comments made by the director, Kim Ji-Woon
http://ecard.sanook.com/ecard.php?cat=54 - Animated Flash e-cards for the movie
http://www.asiandb.com/browse/movie_detail.pfm?code=5446&mode=stuff - posters and press photos

this review (c) Larry D Burns, 2004. all other text and webdesign (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 M. Apple Collingridge, A. Collingridge, Larry D Burns. All characters, situations and images remain the property of their respective owners. The text and webdesign of this site may not be copied, reproduced, mirrored, printed commercially or ripped off in any other way. Do not hotlink directly to images hosted on this site.