A Tale of Two Sisters
2003, R, 115 min. Directed by Kim Jee-woon. Starring Kim Kap-su, Yum Jung-ah, Lim Su-jeong, Mun Geun-yeong.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 11, 2005
There’s more rank dread and inscrutable mystery in any one scene of this South Korean psychological thriller than in all the American horror films of the past 10 years. Let’s face it, the U.S. ideal of self-reflexive horror and action-inflected gore has now grown so stale that Wes Craven’s newest plays more like an ABC Afterschool Special with teeth (lots and lots of teeth, mind you) than any semblance of the great director’s joyously demented back catalog. In fact, the only two American shockers worth the price of admission lately have been remakes of Japanese horror films – The Ring and The Grudge, respectively – with at least two more hopefully on the way, Hideo Nakata’s self-helmed The Ring 2 and Walter Salles’ do-over of Nakata’s Dark Water. The boom in Asian horror is now going full throttle, which only serves to point out the stale and clichéd weaknesses of our own contemporary releases. A Tale of Two Sisters is a far cry from Nakata’s confrontationally surreal style, however; it owes more to the supersaturated, mind-bending giallos of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and on the face of it there’s also more than a little of Brian De Palma’s classic Sisters as well. Marked throughout by an exquisite attention to detail and art direction, Kim’s film is pure gothic horror of the sort epitomized by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic descent into madness depicted in The Yellow Wallpaper, and just as untrustworthy in its narrative viewpoint. Some viewers might label the film difficult for its brazen (and wholly successful) attempts to recreate the inner turmoil of a shattered mind, but Kim and his cast pull it off with unnerving aplomb. The story, without giving too much away, concerns two teenage sisters, Su-mi (Lim) and Su-yeon (Mun) who, along with their father (Kim) and a very wicked stepmother (Yum), move into a beautifully-appointed house in the countryside, apparently to recuperate from some undisclosed trauma. The mansion – it seems to have limitless rooms – is the key to something (we don’t know what until fully three-quarters of the way though the film) in the siblings’ history that upended not only their own adolescent lives but those of everyone around them. Soon enough, the older sister, stalwart, unflappable Su-yeon is fending off the unwanted advances of nightmares come to life while her younger sister quakes in abject fear at the sight of an antique wooden closet that stands sentry in her bedroom. While the father makes appeals to the girls to relax and unwind, and the stepmother harangues them at every turn, the film’s elliptical structure and queasy tone parallels the girls’ unmoored mental state. Of the plot, that’s more than enough to spill. It’s Kim’s steadfast refusal to offer any easy answers to the questions unfolding onscreen – and his drop-dead-gorgeous direction – that makes A Tale of Two Sisters an unexpected classic. Buoyed by finely nuanced performances from the entire cast (not to mention the eerily pristine house itself), it’s a revelatory slice of lunatic calm, as horrifically delicious as a petit four dipped in tears and dusted with doom.