The Korean horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters is being pitched as a break from the spookily confusing tide of Japanese horror, but Kim Jee-Woon's overseas blockbuster falls into line with a lot of J-horror genre trappings. The action takes place mostly at a creepy (but immaculately decorated) house, where the shadows move, ghosts spring out of dark corners accompanied by the sound of techno-static, and oddly unsettling items turn up, like a closet full of identical print dresses and a set of partially destroyed photos. Throughout, Kim builds suspense out of what's just beyond the audience's field of vision: What face lurks behind that mop of hair? What's swimming under the water? What's inside that bloody butcher's paper in the fridge? And why can no one in horror films get good TV reception?
Kim weaves these clichés into effectively nerve-wracking setpieces, though between the jumps, A Tale Of Two Sisters becomes mired in ponderous melodrama. The story opens with two teenage sisters—assertive, moody Im Soo-Jung and meekly submissive Moon Geun-Young—arriving at their father's house after having spent an unspecified amount of time at a hospital. Their stepmother (Yeom Jeong-Ah) tries to make the girls comfortable, but Im bucks petulantly and accuses Yeom of past abuse. The rest of the film dances around the truth of the family dynamic, building to a last-act revelation that touches off an extended, time-jumbled montage. The finale almost explains what's been going on, though like a lot of Asian horror, A Tale Of Two Sisters is largely compelling for how it touches on the characters' anxieties without fully resolving them. The film feels haunted by the relationship between Im and Moon, who cling to each other in the face of a hostile hostess, even though that may not be their best option.
The film's most striking aspect is Kim's framing, which includes a fair number of overhead shots and off-kilter angles. The art of horror filmmaking lies in defining screen space, so that audiences are led to look beyond the foreground for what might be jumping into the emptiness. With A Tale Of Two Sisters, it takes time to adjust to what Kim shows, which means the audience—and the sisters—have a hard time figuring out where the scares are coming from.