"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 it follows you around like a ghost."
A Tale of Two Sisters is a
2003 South Korean psychological horror film based loosely on a
Joseon Dynasty folktale entitled "Janghwa Hongryeon" (literally
'Rose Flower, Red Lotus') . It was written and directed by Kim
Jee-woon and is both the highest-grossing Korean horror film to-date
and was the first to be screened in American theatres.
Sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon have always been very close and, since the death of their mother, Su-mi has become extremely protective of her sister. Their father has recently remarried and his new wife has become the girls' stepmother - increasingly ruling the household with an iron fist - and though Su-mi has always managed to confront and stand up to her stepmother, Su-yeon, being younger and very fragile, has been unable to defend herself against the increasing psychological and physical abuse inflicted on her by the woman. Worried for Su-yeon’s safety, Su-mi has tried, on many occasions, to talk to her father about the situation, but he has been rather distant, seeming almost uncaring and unwilling to listen.
On returning from a period of convalescence, Su-mi and Su-yeon almost instantly begin to clash with their stepmother. During the days following their return home, strange incidents also begin to occur and another presence can clearly be felt within the house but, as Su-mi tries to ascertain the truth behind what’s occurring, while trying to keep her sister safe, the actions of her stepmother become increasingly erratic, and the question quickly becomes whether her behaviour (and the odd occurrences) are her attempts to scare the girls, a spirit trying to take revenge, or something else entirely…
The film begins in an institution of some kind, with a doctor attempting to get Su-mi to talk about "that day". She pays no attention whatsoever and stares at the floor, her hair covering her face, until the doctor shows her a picture of her family, at which point she looks up slowly and stares, almost longingly, out of the window. The scene then cuts to Su-mi and Su-yeon being taken home by car, their father greeting them on their arrival, and all seems utterly idyllic until their stepmother makes her entrance. She is overly, obviously falsely, nice and it is instantly clear that Su-mi hates her, while Su-yeon is truly frightened of her. Almost immediately subsequent to this encounter, the strange occurrences start to take place and Su-mi begins her battle against her stepmother, while desperately trying to protect her sister from her.
A lot of horror films are described in dark, brooding terms but very few could be described as beautiful. A Tale of Two Sisters is a sumptuously beautiful film. The ongoing flower motif throughout the movie gives warmth to the early scenes but, as the tension begins to build, takes on an oppressive, claustrophobic quality and almost becomes a character in itself. This is certainly not a standard horror movie and, though there are spine chilling moments, they are not actually the focus of the storyline, which is much more centered around the battle of wills between the main characters. Yes, there are demons present, but they are mainly those created by child abuse, mental instability and suicide.
The best way to view a film like A Tale of Two Sisters for the first time is to know as little of the storyline as possible (anyone who has already seen the film will know what I mean) and, as such, reviewing it presents a difficult task. The story builds slowly, to such an extent that the growing tension is almost palpable; the story grips from the first moment to the last; and, unlike most Hollywood fare, viewers are not led through the plot by the hand. The set pieces are also so cleverly put together that, no matter what your perceptions of what you're seeing are, you'll find yourself rethinking the ongoing events at least twice before the credits role.
Watching A Tale of Two Sisters a second time is like watching a different movie, with hindsight changing almost every scene on the screen. Dialogue and reactions that may have seemed strange during the first viewing (for example by Su-mi's father) are suddenly self explanatory, and scenes that had appeared as just plain odd contain clues galore to the forthcoming plot twists.
Cast & Crew:
The entire cast perform admirably throughout A Tale
of Two Sisters:
Im Soo-jung, despite her age, seems more than
capable of carrying the film on her young shoulders and conveys the
necessary fear, anger and confusion at appropriate moments without
ever resorting to theatricality.
Moon Geun-young as the younger
sister is appropriately sweet and frail, in stark contrast to Yeom
Jeong-ah's suitably two-faced and malicious stepmother.
as the father has less to do, but nevertheless succeeds in making
his character appear duly haunted and out of his
Previously known for his debut black comedy The Quiet
Family, the successful wrestling comedy The Foul King and more
recently the spaghetti Western The Good The Bad The Weird confessed
horror buff Kim Jee-woon decided to give up the laughs completely
when he contributed the segment Memories to the pan-Asian horror
anthology Three. In retrospect, Memories now appears to be a
practice run for ideas explored further in A Tale of Two
DreamWorks have bought the remake rights and plan
to release their version (to be entitled The Uninvited) sometime in
2009. It is hard to imagine a major US studio releasing a film with
such a fragmented narrative, so anybody who is baffled by the Korean
original and prefers a more cut-and-dried approach to storytelling
may favour the no doubt simplified American version instead. My
personal feeling is that an American remake is entirely unnecessary
and will undoubtedly be a watered-down, blander, and less
Region 2 Tartan Video
Commentary with director,
cinematographer and lighting director
Commentary with director -
Kim Jee-woon, Im Soo-jung & Moon Geun-young
Easter Egg – Letter from Moon Geun-young
Behind The Scenes
Post Production Documentaries
(Production design, Music & CGI)
To the Viewer – An
explanation by the director
A Psychiatrists Perspective
Easter Egg – Letter from Im Soo-jung (Su-mi)
Dolby Digital 2.0
DTS Digital Surround 5.1
Bonus Material: 160 mins approx
PAL DVD 9 x 2