A tale of beautiful ugliness. Or ugly beauty. Whichever you prefer, A Tale of Two Sisters is worth the ride. I didn't hope for much from this movie when I first watched it, annoyed in the beginning scenes with the typical "girl with hair over face" effect so common since Ringu and Ju-On. My mind instantly screamed "Cash-in!!!"... but this exceeded my low expectations by leagues. I was quickly won by the young girls, their 'evil' stepmother, and the unrelinquished ghosts in their house and in their memories.
WFT = 25
W = 9
T = 8
F = 8
Of course, it didn't take long to try and pull another smelly American remake of this beautiful Korean trip of haunted house psycho supernatural awesomeness. Perhaps it's a form of flattery when a foreign director wakes up to discover his 'merkin counterpart has replaced his characters with sorority chicks and slapped a new title on it. Here's hoping at least Ji-woon Kim made a hefty bundle off his plot. So if you want a dumbed-down rip-off translation of this, go on and watch 'The Uninvited' and leave the big guns to Kim and his cast.
Like many horror creepfests, this flick has a slow lead-in. You have to do the work for the first bit of the film, keeping attention on details you think you might not remember. This is a bit of an atypical haunted house/psychothriller in the sense that you're not entirely sure when things are happening - or if they are really happening - until about the second half. You're also not sure as to which details are significant to getting the story. Just accept that the inevitable way you will start this film is in confusion and the inevitable way you will end it is with the urge to rewind with the purpose of putting the little pieces in place.
Soo-mi is institutionalized and semi-catatonic, her doctor unsuccessfully trying to help her recall the details of some traumatizing event. The next moment, she is being driven home with her sister Soo-yeon to a secluded but beautiful old house by the edge of a sunny lake. The house is dark on the outside and on the inside, filled with rooms of half-light and drawn shades.
In the entryway the sisters are immediately assailed by Eun-joo, their stepmother. She is perfectly-manicured in her style of dress and her tacky smile, and she talks with an incessant cheerfulness that is a poor disguise for the disgust and annoyance at the girls' return home. They barely respond to her because she scares them; they seem shocked to see her as she is (or at all) and they quickly escape upstairs followed by her dialog about how intrepid she is making this big dinner for them and how long it'll take.
The minute Soo-mi gets to her room and returns her diaries to her desk, things begin to go more wrong. The identical diaries she is returning to the desk are already there. Her closet is filled with two sets of the same dress.
Meanwhile, their father makes a phone call to someone. He looks haggard and upset. He does a great job at being both absent and present in the film as a male mired in a kind of over-domineering and warring female presence. He seems to only half buy in to the idea that mothering should be left to a mother figure, but he's also obviously too helpless for whatever reason to do anything otherwise. At dinner, he quietly places two little white pills next to his wife's plate before fleeing the scene.
It's clear that Soo-mi and her stepmother are about to lock horns, with Soo-yeon staring on, dumbfounded and sullen at being forced to sit through whatever situation this is. When Soo-mi leaves, evil step-mama sort of taunts Soo-yeon out of the room, saying she's expecting her to follow after her sister, insinuating she's more or less capable of doing nothing for herself. Soo-mi quickly reassures Soo-yeon that if Eun-joo picks on her, she'll handle it like some kid handling a bully in a schoolyard.
The soundtrack is sparse in this film, and I think this fits the strange atmosphere of the house and the broken family inside it. And the colorization of the film (yes, by now you've figured it out that I'm obsessed with color - it makes all the difference sometimes!) and set are incredible. There are parts of the film that seem totally grayed and faded out, or obscured by darkness, only to be offset by brilliantly color-rich scenes and it's hard to prepare yourself for the sporadic switch between the two perspectives. Many of the scenes with the father are grayish, whereas the more high-tension parts are the reverse.
The horror kicks in with the archetypal signs of the haunted house. Footsteps, cold air, creaking doors, TV static, creepy shit in the fridge, and so on. But what I like about this movie is how the plot escalates, getting more and more messed up as Soo-mi and the stepmother she only refers to as "that woman" exacerbate their rivalry that seems to be centered around the father's love or some old battle from the past. Some of the scenes in this thing stayed with me for months after I saw the movie. It's not that the ending is totally unpredictable (though it took me a while to put it together) or that this is some entirely new invention plotwise. It's just how the events are sequenced, how they add up to the whole story's point, and how the characters are acted that makes this a fabulous reinvention of the haunted house ghost story.
While all of the parts are well-played in this film, the two who stuck the most in my mind were the part of Soo-yeun and Eun-joo. Soo-yeon is the fragile 'little sister' whose behavior is childish and erratic. She scares easily, eats the plants outside the house before anything else when she first arrives, and stays close to Soo-mi in almost every scene. Her character is victimized by the stepmother who Soo-mi claims uses her as a scapegoat
Eun-joo is the polar opposite. She doesn't do a very good job at masking her inner freak show. The suzie homemaker act dissolves delightfully about five seconds into her character's airtime. It's plain that whatever gripes the sisters are suffering from, she is equally if not far more twisted than they are. This becomes painfully apparent when her brother and his scared wife come over for dinner. Eun-joo tells a funny story, and nobody at the table reacts or moves, as if they are frightened of her. The girls are equally disturbed by her, mostly because they are a constant reminder of their real mother, who still has a say in matters - though not in a conventional way. One particular scene of hers is especially "Mommy Dearest"; she yanks Su-yeon out of bed in the middle of the night, messes her around, and locks her in a closet. If the director didn't use "Mommy Dearest" as a muse for that scene, it's one hell of a coincidence.
The presence of the mother figure (the girls' actual mother) was extremely confusing. What her history actually was, or how she came to be replaced by the stepmother is somewhat explained, but not completely. I also wasn't too sure about the ending. On the same vein, I got frustrated with what was or was not real, but I guess that's part of the point. What comes across is that this story is more focused on memory than it is on any one of the three main female characters - though Soo-mi does probably have the most scenes. Memory is elusive. If we are good at lying to ourselves, we can convince ourselves that the past happened in another way. We can paint ourselves and others in a completely different light because even though the past can't change, our reconstruction of it can be whatever we create it to be.
The infamous dinner scene...