Based on Korean folklore, Kim-Jee Woon’s supernatural horror movie A Tale of Two Sisters is as equally Grimm as it is beautiful. A puzzle of childhood nightmares and adolescent angst passing over into the world of disavowed adult neurosis. It’s as fun as it is frightening.
The two titular sisters are Su-yeon (Geun-young Moon) Su-mi (Soo-jeong Lim, who was delightfully whimsical in Park Chan-Wook’s comedy I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK). After a period spent in a mental institution for treatment of an (initially) undisclosed illness, the pair return to the family home and find themselves at constant dispute with their snivelling stepmother Eun-Joo (Yum Jung-Ah). She longs to embrace her maternal instinct and adopt the kids as her own, whilst the pair plot out ways to expose her as a crook to their oblivious father Moo-Hyeon (Kim Kap-Su).
But what is the cause of such a conflict? This is the central mystery of the movie. Overtones of abuse and dark secrets creep in from the shadows of the family home, only to be shunned by the domineering adults who won’t believe the unsettling apparitions that haunt the girl’s dreams and bedrooms.
What’s most impressive with A Tale of Two Sisters is the subtle shift in tone, but it’s ability to remain omnipresently eerie. From the girls uncannily having their first period on the self same day, and all the trauma and disillusionment that brings (one imagines), to the sight of a bloody sack being dragged across the hallway by an unseen hand. It’s all presented with great poise, primarily resting on the sublime acting of the two young leads and the way they are framed in one-point perspective by cinematographer Lee Mo-Gae. He presents the house, with all it’s gaudy kitsch wallpaper, as a panoptic maze, which the girl’s wander around unable to escape the demons within. They may not be the Grady twins, but the movies similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining will certainly cause a sudden rush of blood to the head of some horrorphiles.
It’s a truly schizophrenic movie. Are the girls insane imp? Is there would-be mother insane? Is the father an absolute lummox? Yes. Filmmaker Woon does a fantastic job at keeping us disorientated yet hooked throughout the film, with several MacGuffins, plot contortions and the hop-skip-jump between the real and the imaginary. The surreal aesthetic, plus the beautiful score from Lee Byung-woo, never falters the driven heart of the movie, the two girls still pining from the tragic death of their mother some time ago.
Whilst Hollywood is off making melodramatic, formulaic and downright shit slashers (plus terrible remakes), South Korea is ahead of the curve making transcendental horror films like this, which are unafraid to show some heart and emotion. Slow, engrossing and chilling, A Tale of Two Sisters is unmissable.
PS – You can watch the movie, with English subtitles, for free at YouTube right now!