Since I can only go off the way John has described the kinds of early ’00s Asian horror films he’s been talking about in the last few entries (I haven’t seen any of them), I’d say South Korea’s A Tale Of Two Sisters probably falls into same category of horror movie as something like Dark Water or Ringu. What we have here is a film that could be described as a dark psychological drama, and yet has an undercurrent of the macabre that gives its familial anguish an extra amount of punch. And though I’m probably a tad bit more familiar with modern Korean cinema than horror movies from that part of the world (though that’s not saying much), A Tale Of Two Sisters‘ nimble mixture of elegance and ugliness has me wishing I wasn’t such a dummy when it comes to these kinds of movies.
The two sisters that this tale concerns are Su-mi (played by Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Guen-young), while the film opens with Su-mi being treated inside a mental institution. We then see Su-mi along with her sister Su-yeon arriving with their father at his secluded estate, which I initially thought was a flashback, but am now realizing wasn’t (the films filled with lots of little narrative details like this that you have to piece together), and the father has now remarried after the death of the two girls’ mother. This stepmother (Yum Jung-Ha) is clearly unstable and seems intent on manipulating the girls in ways that at first seem like she’s just trying to force herself into the sisters’ lives in order to make them forget their mother, but as the film progresses her motives become even more bizarre as they’re fueled by some increasingly violent behavior.
This movie again falls into that Japanese/Korean horror aesthetic of being a very slow burn, as things very slowly get crazier and crazier as the movie progresses, which I guess should be the ideal formula for most horror movies. It’s almost disarming the way the tranquil music and lush cinematography of the early moments of the film don’t give even the slightest hint that anything might be off about this family. Of course, by the end of the film, there’s enough twists and reversals that it becomes quite apparent that everything we saw in the more peaceful half-hour that opens the film is all essentially a lie. And I’ll just leave it at that, since I don’t want to spoil the movie, and honestly there’s so much narrative complexity to the film, that I’m not sure I could adequately explain everything that unfolds in the film’s twist-y second half.
What I will say, since I feel like this is an aspect that often gets left out when discussing foreign films in general, is that the performances are pretty superb. Both of the young girls in A Tale Of Two Sisters, due to the film’s tricky mix of horror and grief, are forced to be scared in a way that feels deeper than most little kids are forced to be scared in horror movies, and they both totally pull off. Meanwhile, Yum Jung-Ha essentially plays the stepmother from hell, as you spend most of the film marveling at just how insane she is, and yet there is this sad element of her just being a woman that wants a family to call her own.
But I suppose it’s a film where the performances along with the story would have to be pretty compelling, since the film clearly didn’t have a huge budget (due to mainly being shot on one location), and yet it never feels that way. Director Kim Jee-woon clearly has an eye for deep, dark visuals that fills the film with a sense of dread that always let’s you know something’s off, even if it takes a while for the story to let you know exactly where this is all coming from. Kim would go on to direct movies like The Good, The Bad, And The Weird and I Saw The Devil, which you’ve probably noticed at some point were streaming on Netflix but never went to the trouble of watching. In 2013, Kim even made his American debut directing the supposed Arnold comeback movie The Last Stand, and judging from the fact that his next project is a South Korea-produced film, I have to imagine he came to the realization that life as a Hollywood gun-for-hire is the most terrifying fate of all.