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A Tale of Two Sisters
Sometimes, to use a time-worn cliche, less is more. Sadly, many mainstream American horror movies don’t take this idea to heart. Sometimes, the eerie, insidous fear of something unseen lurking in the closet– or the human consciousness– is more terrifying than lots of blood and gore and freaky CGI effects. In his 2003 psychological suspense film Janghwa, Hongryein (A Tale of Two Sisters), South Korean director Ji-woon Kim proves to be masterful at drawing tension and suspense from even the most understated domestic scene.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” is based very loosely on a Korean folktale known as “Janghwa, Hongryeon”. The folktale tells of two sisters who are terrorized by their brutal, sadistic stepmother. There’s no fairy godmother to save the day in either the folk story or the movie, however, and in the latter, the viewer can only watch as strange, seemingly supernatural events spiral out of control.
Right from the get-go, the sense of mystery and tragedy is palpable. When the film opens, the older sister Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) is shown being questioned by a doctor in a mental instution. She sits expressionless as the doctor intensely quizzes her about her family. The scene dreamily dissolves into a idyllic, pastoral country scene. The contrast between the stark white-walled asylum and the lush South Korean countryside is unsettling and effective. We are then introduced to Su-Mi’s family– her distracted father (Kap-su Kim); her sweet, soft-spoken younger sister Su-yeon (marvelously portrayed by Geun-Young Moon); and her adversary– her step-mother Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum) who appears more Stepford Wife sinister than brutal sadist.
Even in this peaceful domestic setting, it’s obvious that something is out of place. The girls are haunted at night by strange spectres. Visitors to the home spontaneously fall into violent spasmodic seizures. Stepmom’s prized pet bird is found dead in the girls’ bed. Slowly, the secrets behind the family’s tragic, disturbing past are teased out until the situation reaches a bloody, mind-bending climax.
The ending to A Tale of Two Sisters is, in fact, rather puzzling and ambiguous. The lines between dream and reality have been blurred into a nightmarish haze. I’ll admit that it took two viewings for me to fully piece together all the strange clues scattered throughout the movie. (The director did an in-depth interview about the symbolism behind the story, but the DVD I rented didn’t come with Cast Commentary.) All in all, the movie is impressive in its scope– it goes beyond a typical ghost story and proves to be a surprisingly moving story about how a family copes with loss.
RECENT Comments: A Tale of Two Sisters
This movie is absolutely gorgeous and terrifying--it's truly one of the most aesthetically amazing horror movies I've seen since suspiria. Great review! I'd love to hear your take on the supposed re-make made a few years ago, ugh.
RECENT Comments: A Tale of Two Sisters
Never heard of this but I love ghost stories. Will be checking this out soon.
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