“As much as you hate it, I’m the only one in this world you can call mother … got it?”
A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) rounds out the first ten entries in our “Top 50 Scariest Movies of All Time” by Boston.com list challenge, coming in at number 40. And, I’ll tell you right off the bat, I. Loved. This. Film.
Directed by Kim Ji-woon (who directed a segment in Three, I Saw the Devil, and The Last Stand starring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger), A Tale of Two Sisters is a beautifully composed, well-paced Korean horror film based on a folktale. I’ll do my best to conceal any plot twists that might ruin your future viewing of the film.
A Tale of Two Sisters centers around the life of two sisters, Su-mi (Lim Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun Young) Bae, who, upon the sudden death of their mother, return to their father’s home following a stay in a psychiatric hospital. The girls are inseparable, holding hands and dabbling their feet in the waters of a nearby lake. It’s as if they are cocooning in the calm and safety of one another, attempting to find safe harbor against the darkness surrounding the death of their mother. And while their surroundings are beautiful and tranquil something seems wrong. Very wrong.
Enter the girls’ “evil” stepmother, Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-ah), who, for all the audience is able to so far surmise, swooped in and stole their father away from their mother before her death. The girls openly show their disapproval of Eun-joo, who is cruel and violent towards them, focusing the really nasty stuff at the youngest sister, Su-yeon. Her abuse is extensive, varying from verbal and mental to the physical. Her abuse comes when the girls least expect it, often without provocation. This alone would make for a horrific film: the two young sisters trying to acclimate to life after their mother’s death, to find a place in their new family, to learn how to cope with the abuses of their new “mother”.
As their time at their father’s house passes, among long, dark corridors and dimly lit rooms, the relationship between the girls and Eun-joo continues to unravel. At night, the eldest sister, Su-mi, swears someone is entering her room. She is tormented by nightmares and visions. In her waking hours, she clings to her baby sister, Su-yeon, trying her best to protect her from the horrific abuse suffered at the hands of Eun-joo. When their father, Moo-hyeon, (played by Kim Kap-su) tries to intervene, to reach out to Su-mi, knowing she is ill and maybe not yet better despite her recent hospitalization, he is shut out. Su-mi’s bitterness toward him runs deep.
Things between Eun-joo and Su-mi escalate into full-blown physical bouts which almost come to a terminal end one afternoon while Su-mi’s father is out running errands. Poised over the unmoving, but conscious, body of Su-mi, a ceramic statue held over her head ready for the dropping, Eun-joo is stopped just short of crushing the girl’s head when Moo-hyeon returns home.
All is not how it seems. What is really going on in the Bae house?
A Tale of Two Sisters is rich, atmospheric, and decadently paced. Director Kim Ji-woon plays with light, with sound, like a master, evoking emotions and driving the story without the need for so much dialogue. The film is nuanced and subtle revealing twist after twist.
There are supernatural aspects to the film, but they are well played, like dreams and nightmares, ultimately light handed allowing the audience to decide whether what the characters are seeing is imagined or real. Performances by Yeom Jeong-ah and Lim Soo-jung are wonderful to watch, as their acidic stepmother-stepdaughter story arc plays out. A Tale of Two Sisters is a must-see.
I swear I didn’t see it coming. Will you?
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A Tale of Two Sisters on TUMBLR
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