The golden age of horror: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Chris: A Tale Of Two Sisters is a movie about lies and deceit. It is about a dark and terrible secret two people share but dare not speak of, even to each other. We know that something terrible has happened to this family in the past, and seems to be happening to it in the present. That all this is happening inside a haunted country manor house only adds to the tension.

After the jump, ghosts always do complicate a reconciliation

Chris: In most of our writing in this series so far, we’ve been a bit vague about spoilers, but haven’t shied away from them either. I figure most of the time you folks have either seen these movies before, or are skimming these pieces for a recommendation perhaps. With Tale of Two Sisters, things are a bit different though. This is a movie that’s more obscure. It’s also a movie that you really ought to check out. It’s fabulous. It also is a film that will be tough to discuss without spoiling lots of it. We’re going to start off by discussing some non-spoilery things first, and then we’ll give you the signal to bail out until you’ve seen this wonderful film.

Barac: In our discussion of Ju-on, I mentioned that I felt that the key to success for a horror film is scaring its viewer, and that as long as it succeeded in that aim I could forgive it all sorts of failings that might otherwise prevent me from enjoying a movie. But if that’s the main thing a horror movie is delivering, it’s tough for me to recommend it outside a circle of horror aficionados. I’d never pitch Ju-on to my generally horror-averse mother, for example. A Tale of Two Sisters is that rare thing: a horror movie that I would recommend to that wider audience. And it’s entirely down to a twisty narrative and those terrible family tensions which would still be compelling drama even if they weren’t so expertly mixed with claustrophobic, malevolent atmosphere and the uncanny.

Chris: The sound in this movie is just delicious. The floorboards creak, the wind wheezes through open windows, there’s a faint buzz that gets louder when a television set is left on overnight. Director Kim Jee-woon invokes the horror-on-a-budget scares of the original 1963 version of The Haunting by using the noises of the house as big part of scaring us. We hear feet running down hallways. Doors creak noisily, opening on their own ever so slowly. The country manor house where most of the movie takes place is beautifully filmed. The cozy outward appearance belies the gothic, eerie interior with its long hallways, creepy veranda, and bedrooms that seem to hold dark secrets.

Nothing is explained to us easily in A Tale Of Two Sisters. We arrive in medias res, and make guesses about what’s happened before and what the situation is now. The mother of the two sisters, Su-mi and Su-yeon has died. The two girls took it badly and had mental breakdowns and needed to be institutionalized. Su-mi is older, more worldly, and protective of her younger sister. She hates her their stepmother. Su-yeon is spacey and child-like and seems at times distracted and almost simple-minded. She’s scared to death of the stepmother and seems to be the target of verbal, mental, and physical abuse. Why the conflict between the girls and the stepmother? We hazard guesses on that later on when a cache of photos is discovered. Those pictures show that their father met his second wife when their future stepmom was a nurse. Perhaps their real mother took ill and the nurse helped care for her and became involved with the father? We’re left to guess.

The father appears to carry great weight on his shoulders. His two daughters are clearly still struggling to adjust after leaving the institution. The conflict between the stepmother and the daughters seems to consume the house. That weird, ghostly things seem to be happening now that the girls are back home only ratchets up the tension. The impressive thing that this film does is to pose dozens of questions and create a scenario where it seems like nothing can fit together…and then delivers to us a gloriously effective third act where things do indeed all click into place. And, having said that, if you haven’t yet seen this movie, get outta here! We’re going to spoil a film that shouldn’t be spoiled. If you’ve read this far, I think you’ll really like this picture. Seek it out.

Barac and Chris: Seriously. You don’t want to be spoiled. Trust us.

Barac: The opening is really interesting, actually. We only see Su-mi in the institution, and the whole drive is shot in such a way that we don’t see who’s in the car at any point, even after the father gets out, knocks on the window and asks if they’re getting out. Even the front view of the car in that bit is angled in such a way that we cannot see the occupants. Only once everyone else has gone inside do we see Su-mi, and then Su-yeon get out, and horse around.

Chris: Huh. I assumed through the film that the opening is actually from afterwards, from when the father calls in the stepmother and they decide they need to get Su-mi back into the hospital. I think you might be right, though. I do love how the opening gives us our first clues. “Who do you think you are?” the doctor asks her, gently. Indeed.

Barac: Their first encounter with the stepmother does suggest that they were both in the institution, though. In fact, she addresses most of her comments about wellness to Su-yeon. (Speaking of which, what an entrance. Swooping forward out of the shadows like some sort of vengeful spectre…)

Chris: A Tale of Two Sisters is a movie that features an unreliable narrator, a staple of horror fiction and movies. Normally, I detest this device, mostly because it is usually deployed so clumsily. In the very rare cases when it’s used in a way that doesn’t cheat the audience and hide lazy narrative choices, it can be the most effective horror fiction narrative voice possible. I think that’s the case here. Kim Jee-woon deserves to take a bow for the writing and directing of this impressive little horror film, not only for not cheating, but also for the clues he drops throughout the movie.

There’s nothing here that doesn’t fit when the facades come down and all is slowly but surely revealed. (You’ll want to watch this movie at least twice, and the second time through is a fascinating experience when you go in knowing the truth.) The, ah, cycle synchronization, the father handing his wife a couple of pills at dinner…it all makes sense by the end of the film. Other clues smack you in the head on repeat viewings. Note how much luggage that dad retrieves from the car when it arrives (like that’s enough for two adolescent girls.) Notice later how those suitcases are all in Su-mi’s bedroom anyway. The dinner with Sun-kyu and his wife, notice who’s at the table (and who isn’t), along with the uncomfortable silences. Check the sleeping arrangements on that first night. Dad sleeps fully clothed and gets up to go sleep elsewhere? Best of all, Kim Jee-won effectively segregates Su-mi’s psychotic hallucinations from the presence of the very real ghost. What other breadcrumbs am I leaving out?

Barac: It may strike you that there are some surprising omissions in conversation. All part of the puzzle. And man, that kitchen sink scene gave me the willies. By no means does A Tale of Two Sisters stint on the scares just because it’s also telling a complicated (and nonlinear) narrative.

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Chris: Oh lord yes. Menstrual dream wraith is as scary a sequence as I’ve seen in a movie so far this October. Bringing the supernatural elements into the discussion, we should note that A Tale of Two Sisters is a great example of the dichotomy between ambiguity and subtlety in movie endings, this being an example of the latter. There’s a really un-subtle reveal towards the end here (“Su-yeon is dead!”) that feels clumsy in comparison to the rest of the movie. That scene has the feel of a reshoot required by some Korean film exec who was too lost and too impatient to let Kim Jee-woon reveal the answers in his own good time.

Subtle, though, the ending remains. Is there a ghost in the house, or is it just Su-mi’s psychotic breakdown? I think the answer is completely clear. Su-yeon is obviously haunting that house, and she absolutely is ready to settle the score with the stepmother who cruelly let her die in an evil case of mistaken identity.

Barac: I have to say, for much of the movie I was sympathetic towards the stepmother. She’s not the best person, and there are some questions about how she ended up married to the father, but she genuinely appears to be trying to connect with her stepdaughter(s). Despite Su-mi being more than a bit of a trial, she genuinely appears to love her new husband, and in general displays few of the traits of the classical evil stepmother of fairy tales. Aaaand then you see how Su-yeon dies. It’s a bit tough to let that one slide.

Chris: That last part you mention is a fascinating bit of dialogue and story, actually. I’ve watched just that sequence by itself almost a half-dozen times, and I think I see exactly what’s going on, and it’s impressive filmmaking and key to the story. The stepmother thinks it’s the mother under the wardrobe, she’s undecided on whether to help, but then makes up her mind and turns to go back to save her. Just then Su-mi comes out of the bathroom into the upstairs hallway. The stepmother needs to be cool here. “Did you hear something?” she asks. She clearly wants them both to go into the adjacent bedroom, discover the accident, and then spring into action. Instead, Su-mi ignores the question (even though she did indeed hear the crash when the wardrobe fell.) “You’re trying to act like Mom. Do me a favor. Stay out of our lives.” That flips the switch for stepmom, and prompts the fateful, ominous declaration that will haunt them both going forward: “You might regret this moment. Keep that in mind!” It serves as a last chance for both of them, but neither will back down. When all is revealed, then, we know that both Su-mi and the stepmother share that dark blame and awful secret. Thus is born an evil stepmother straight outta Grimm’s.

Barac: Speaking of fairy tales, supposedly this is based on a Korean fairy tale by the name of Janghwa Hongryeon Jeon (and the original Korean title is Janghwa, Hongryeon; or Red Flower, Red Lotus. Who knows why the localizers decided to rename it the relatively dull A Tale of Two Sisters, which summons up images of Dickens.). From Wikipedia’s description it seems to come from the same sort of tradition as Cinderella – a saintly mother who dies in the early life of the two sisters, their father’s later remarriage to a wicked stepmother, etc. The difference here is that things get much darker. The stepmother adds a number of sons to the family, and wants them to receive all the family’s wealth and resources, so she fakes one of the sisters miscarrying out of wedlock and when that sister runs away in despair, she has one of the sons follow and drown her in a pond. Cue tiger attack on the murderous son that costs him a couple of limbs. Her hatred redoubled by this event, the stepmother harasses the other sister until she drowns herself in the same pond. Of course, this results in our classic Asian vengeful ghosts, and people keep dying until a newcomer decides to get to the bottom of things and when he learns of the stepmother’s crimes he has her and her sons executed, finally calming the sisters’ spirits. The parallels to the movie are pretty loose, but you can see a skeleton of commonality, I think.

Chris: That background is pretty interesting. What I didn’t realize is that this film got remade by Hollywood, too. I’ve heard nothing but middling things about that remake, ambiguously titled The Uninvited. Maybe I’ll watch that later and compare.

Barac: I checked out the 2009 The Uninvited (not to be confused with three other completely unrelated movies with exactly the same name) at one point, because while a lot of American remakes are content to just wholesale copy the original, usually to diminished effect, The Uninvited actually makes some significant changes to the material. There’s a similar sibling dynamic, a dead mother, a reviled stepmother who may have been the mother’s nurse, and a reserved, wealthy father. But in this American version, there’s a significantly higher body count, more action and our protagonist’s mental issues take her much further down roads the Korean original isn’t interested in exploring. It’s…interesting, but not nearly as effective, in my book.

(For our UK visitors, A Tale of Two Sisters is available to stream for Amazon Prime members, or for purchase in digital formats. In North America, currently digital distribution rights are expired and legal downloads don’t exist. Physical copies via DVD are available, and hopefully the movie will soon be back in digital formats.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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