“Do you know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost.” —Eun-Joo, A Tale Of Two Sisters
Though a hybrid of many different forms—Asian horror, family melodrama, centuries-old folktale—Kim Jee-Woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters coheres primarily as a haunted-house movie, set almost entirely in an isolated estate bordered by tall grass and a cast-iron gate. Kim and his cinematographer, Lee Mogae, shot the dark interiors in a supremely elegant style that’s somewhere between film noir and Douglas Sirk, with ornate trappings that take on a powerfully sinister air. Korean cinema is known for its abrupt, sometimes disconcerting tonal shifts, but A Tale Of Two Sisters integrates horror and family melodrama as if they were one and the same. It’s a peculiar, occasionally impenetrable movie, but an original one, too, with a well-deserved reputation for exploding the clichés of Asian horror while cannily exploiting the genre.
Part of appreciating A Tale Of Two Sisters, however, is learning to live with questions the movie either doesn’t resolve, or resolves so murkily that devotees have sucked up a lot of bandwidth sorting them all out. (The No. 1 Google auto-search term after the title is “tale of two sisters explanation.”) The middling 2009 American remake The Uninvited streamlined the plot significantly by casting it as a Sixth Sense redux, but the film functions better as a puzzle where the pieces don’t fit together so easily. After all, this is a movie about a family driven partly to madness by tragedy, and forced to reconstitute itself in a house that’s alive with ghostly disturbances. Atmosphere is everything in the movie, and Kim lays it on thick enough to alleviate some of the confusion his plotting is likely to cause. Luxuriate in A Tale Of Two Sisters first, and figure it out later.
The opening scene provides an image familiar to fans of The Ring, Ju-on, and other Asian-horror staples: a teenage girl, shoulders slumped, head down, with long black hair shrouding her face in a dark curtain. The girl turns out to be Su-Mi (Im Soo-Jung), sitting quietly as a psychiatrist interrogates her at a mental institution. Traumatized by her mother’s death—the circumstances of which aren’t explained until several reels later—Soo-mi and her younger sister, Su-Yeon (Moon Geun-Young), are eventually taken home, where they’re greeted by disconcertingly cheery new stepmother Eun-Joo, played by Yeom Jeong-A. (The remake cast Elizabeth Banks in the Yeom role, cleverly subverting the winning, up-for-anything smile that she flashes in comedies.) Her memorable introduction is a good indicator of Lee’s lovely chiaroscuro lighting scheme and Yeom’s creepy overeager personality, which keeps the other characters (and the audience) on edge:
The shot of Eun-Joo approaching the girls, moving in and out of shadow, gives the unmistakable impression of a woman gliding, ghost-like, over the floorboards. Read into that what you will, but it’s also the first indication that the melodrama—about the evil interloper who has seduced the girls’ weak-willed father (Kim Hab-Su) and replaced their dearly departed mother—isn’t easily extracted from the horror. A Tale Of Two Sisters goes back and forth between sequences of breathtaking fright and scenes of tense, equally disconcerting drama, but the line between them is fluid and interchangeable, and the unsettling mood remains consistent. This is a family that’s been ripped apart by trauma—and possible betrayal—and they’re trapped together in a house that won’t let them forget what happened within its walls.
Lee’s mastery over a variety of tones is clearest in an infamous dinner scene that oscillates between brittle tension, black comedy, and abject terror, with Eun-Joo, the hostess, serving as ringmaster. As if Yeom Jeong-A’s lithe beauty weren’t intimidating enough, she projects a command over the room that cows the other characters, especially her beaten-down partner. (She reminds me a little of Nicole Kidman in To Die For, a praying mantis in high heels, ready to strike at the slightest provocation.) Eager to entertain guests well before anyone else in the family is ready to play host to them, Eun-Joo babbles through an anecdote with such terrifying zeal that a woman goes into convulsions. I’ll only show the first part of the scene—it’s far too long to run in full—but it’s worth noting that it ends with a stinging floor-level shot of a gnarled figure under the cupboards. So domestic horror bleeds into the supernatural kind:
A Tale Of Two Sisters is unlike any horror film I can recall, save maybe for the gorgeous 1961 haunted-house movie The Innocents, which has a smaller infusion of the domestic melodrama that runs through Kim’s film. And there’s a reason for that: Viscerally frightening ghost stories don’t necessarily mix well with portentous family drama. At its best, the new Korean cinema has a genre-jumping schizophrenia that’s exhilarating—and A Tale Of Two Sisters is as good an example as any—but there are stretches when it’s as stifling as the house’s decorous interiors, damaged by a storytelling muddle that the twist-filled ending doesn’t entirely resolve. It’s an odd sensation to be whisked from the black comedy of the dinner scene to a white-knuckle haunting to the hushed unveiling of family secrets, and Kim has trouble striking a balance. (Ditto his otherwise dazzling follow-up, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a spaghetti Western/Hong Kong-style action mash-up that could stand a little tightening.)
Still, the peculiar fusion of horror and melodrama is the point of A Tale Of Two Sisters, which is about elevating a common tragedy—in this case, the death of a mother—to terrifying extremes. The Eun-Joo quote I excerpted above makes the film’s agenda clear, perhaps too clear: The things that scare us are often related to mortality and loss, or some tragedy that lingers in our dreams and waking life. We use the word “haunted” to talk about past events that can’t be purged from our consciences, and A Tale Of Two Sisters succeeds in making that concept literal and often spectacularly nightmarish. For a film this studied, it can also be surprisingly shocking when Kim switches gears: A bedside haunting, with a char-black figure floating ever-so-slowly above the footboard, ranks with Pulse’s hitch-stepped visitation among the scariest moments I can recall in recent movies.
A Tale Of Two Sisters closes on a montage of late-breaking revelations that don’t clarify as much as they should, but you don’t need to look further than its generic remake, The Uninvited, to recognize that clarity ain’t everything. For Kim, style and mood take the film most of the way: Lee Byeong-Woo’s sinuous musical score, with its shades of Mychael Danna’s exoticism; the dark, moody lighting scheme, which creates an atmosphere more common to noir than horror; and the odd tenor of Yeom Jeong-A’s performance as Eun-Joo, which clashes with the setting as much as Eun-Joo does with her newly adopted family. However flawed, it’s an original twist on a genre that sorely needs revitalization.
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