Howard Schumann (howard16)`
To most of us, life is an unfolding process of love. For others like Soo-mi, however, it is dominated by darkness and fear. Based on the Korean folk tale Jangha and Hongryun, Kim Jee-woon
's brilliant gothic horror story "A Tale of Two Sisters
" revolves around two sisters, Soo-mi (Lim Soo-jung
), and Soo-yeon (Moon Geun-young
), who are part of a dysfunctional family that live together in a creepy Victorian-style mansion. Feeling alienated from the world, they cling to each other for survival with the older one, Soo-mi, obsessively protecting the younger against danger. For Soo-mi, however, not coming to terms with the circumstances surrounding her mother's death means mental illness and a mind at odds with reality.
While we may recognize staples such as haunted houses with apparitional sightings, doors that open and close on their own, a cruel and overbearing stepmother, and other events of high strangeness, "A Tale of Two Sisters
" superbly explores deeper psychological meanings including the inability to let go of inner demons and the misplaced desire for revenge. Soo-mi says "Do you know what's really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can't go away, you see. And... and it follows you around like a ghost". There is a timeline but it is left for the viewer to unravel and the story cannot be summarized, only suggested and the film keeps us wondering whether what is happening on screen is objective or subjective.
In the film's opening, Soo-mi, an obviously disturbed young woman, is being questioned by a doctor in a setting that looks like a mental institution. When the doctor asks her to describe what happened "that day", the film flashes back to when Soo-mi and Soo-Yeon return to the home of their father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo
) and stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah
). The stepmother is hostile and resentful and the father is passive and distant but it is obvious that it is Soo-mi who is really hurting. As the girls try to readjust, they are constantly frightened by a presence in the house, which may be nightmares or supernatural occurrences.
Soo-mi sees a figure at the foot of her bed that hovers over her and oozes black blood, a dinner scene in which the guest apparently sees a ghost hiding under the sink and goes into convulsions, a monster emerges from between the legs of one of the sisters, people mysteriously disappear from photographs, and many other maniacal schizophrenic devices to keep the viewer dangling on the edge of insanity. While we sense that much of the story is the projection of someone's mind, we do not know whose and the film keeps us constantly challenged, at least until an important clue is offered in the film's second half.
Shot in gorgeous low-light cinematography, "A Tale of Two Sisters
" has a unique elegance and other worldly beauty that transcends all the scares, and there are plenty. It is haunting in more than one sense of the word and its images may stare back at you when you least expect or want them to. While the film may not offer the weary traveler much in the way of light, it shows us where we can end up if we opt for the darkness. In the words of a wise observer, "Blame is never the answer -- whether it is blaming yourself or others. Rather, the answer lies in stepping out of judgment entirely -- both of yourself AND others. Forgiveness and understanding have great power of healing".
The Korean Tartan DVD offers a series of interviews with the cast as well as the director, some deleted scenes, an audio commentary by Kim Jee-woon
, a psychiatrist's perspective, and a feature on the making of the film. The special features, however, are in Korean without English subtitles.