Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tale of Two Sisters

Tale of Two Sisters"A Tale of Two Sisters" is a rarity among horror films that combines genuine human drama with spookiness. And it goes one better in presenting the audience with a multi-layered mystery that reveals itself gradually. Teenaged Su-mi (Im Su-jeong) and her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-yeong) return home to their father and stepmother after a stay at a mental hospital. Su-mi is outspoken, resentful of her stepmother, and always protective of the more reserved Su-yeon. Shortly after the girls arrive, strange things begin to happen around the house. Su-mi is plagued by horrific nightmares that may or may not be real. Objects seem to replicate themselves. Images of people appear and disappear. Their stepmother (Yeom Jeong-ah) blames the girls and then the house. Su-mi blames her stepmother. Their father (Kim Kab-su) blames everyone's inability to adjust to their new circumstances. Events from the past which are alluded to but never explained may hold the answer. Or is an otherworldly presence at work?

It's not surprising that "A Tale of Two Sisters" owes much of its success to its credibility. The relationships of these people the resentful and protective older sister, the concerned but frustrated father, the cold and jealous stepmotherare in the forefront of the narrative, not secondary to the horror. Deep-seated emotions drive the characters, not fear. Unlike most horror or mystery films, we understand less of what's going on than the characters do. Writer/director Kim Ji-woon keeps the audience in the dark until nearly the end of the film. Since these are credible characters, we want to understand what's happening to them, and that sustains our interest. Layers of the mystery are peeled away gradually, revealing a genuine human tragedy with horrific implications.

"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appeal to fans of psychological thrillers as well as horror. I found the film more gripping than frightening. It has a story to tell -rather than just creeping you out. The film doesn't suffer from underwriting or bad writing that I've come to expect from Asian horror films -or from horror films in general. If anything, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is more complicated than it needs to be at a few points. Production values also seem pretty high. Fine cinematography beautifully contrasts the idyllic, bright countryside surrounding the family's lovely old home with its dark, oppressive interior. In Korean with English or Spanish subtitles.

The DVD (Tartan Video 2005): There are reportedly 2 versions of this Tartan DVD: a single disc that is rated R and a two-disc set that is unrated. I assume it's unrated only because the bonus material hasn't been rated. The disc I saw was the first disc of the 2-disc set. It includes a trailer and two audio commentaries (in Korean with subtitles). The first commentary is by writer/director Kim Ji-woon, director of photography Lee Mo-gae, and lighting director O Seung-chui. This is a scene-by-scene analysis of how the story, tone, and characters are expressed through photography and lighting, including framing, lighting design, and camera movements. It's quite a good commentary if you're interested in the filmmaking process. The second commentary is with writer/director Kim Ji-woon and the actresses who played the sisters, Im Su-jeong and Moon Geun-yeong. Kim gives further commentary about his decisions and intentions and prompts the actresses to comment on their performances. Sorry, I have not seen the second disc of bonus material.

Two sisters Su-Mi and Su-Yeon return to their home after a period of convalescence after the death of their mother. Their father awaits them with his new bride Eun-joo, once a nurse on the father's staff. Su-Mi is intensely angry with both her father and her new stepmother, and from this broken relationship, the film moves forward. But this quickly turns into far more than a wicked stepmother film.

Bit by bit director Ji-woon Kim makes it apparent that there is something deeply wrong. Bad dreams turn into bad reality and back again as viewers learn not to trust the evidence of their eyes. Kim uses a lot of sudden inserts that will have you hitting the pause and step buttons repeatedly, but to no avail. It is a wicked woman, an insane girl, or a haunted house that lies at the dark center of this bleak tale?

This is not so much a horror story as dark tale of characters in search of a resolution one that uses horror as its metaphor. Gestures and glances leave no doubt in anyone's mind that behind the characters words lies a secret that divides them onto separate parts. Only the two young girls seem to find solace together, but their quiet moments are continually disturbed by their step-mother, who seems mad as a hatter. But, as you can probably tell now from this review, almost nothing is as it seems.

The direction really is brilliant. Careful use of color and shadow make their rural home into a haunted gothic mansion. Memories, not ghosts though, are the lurkers in the shadow, and it is up to the viewer to try to find the real thread in a truly layered plot. Images, especially the use of hair and facial profiles contribute to the double meanings. The acting is also excellent, a far cry from the what we're used to in oriental horror. Having watched Ringu recently I can honestly say that this is the better film.

Have somebody with you when you watch this film. You will want the company before this is over.

Buy Tale of Two Sisters Now

First impressions should not always be taken as par for the course. That's the lesson I've learned after my second viewing of this Korean film. While impressed at the technical wizardry of director Ji-woon Kim, his film still left me with a sour taste in my mouth after the initial viewing. "A tale of two sisters" is one of those films that has a major twist in the plot that makes you rethink the entire events you've previously seen. If done right this technique can be a clever move, however it seems to have been done to death in the thrillers of the past 5 years or so. As soon as the credits rolled a strange combination of feeling dumb and disappointed hit me and I felt like I'd missed the whole point of the movie. But although dismayed once the credit rolled I still could not get this film out of my head. The very next day I decided to give it another viewing and I'm glad I did. All of a sudden, key pieces of dialogue revealed themselves to be much more important than previously thought and actions that were once confusing suddenly made a lot more sense. This is a film that commands a second viewing to be fully appreciated. Trust me on this one.

Sisters Su-mi (the older and strong-willed sister) and Su-yeon (the younger and more timid one) return to their father's home, a large rural and gothic house, after being away at the hospital due to extended and unspecified illnesses. Almost immediately after arriving, their shallow, condescending stepmother is on their case accusing and criticizing them for an assortment of things like not cleaning their rooms, being messy, supposedly being rude, etc. Relationships between the three of them deteriorate to the point where the two sisters begin to suffer not only verbal but physical abuse, all while the stepfather looks on passively. Just when tensions begin to reach a boiling point, the stepfather reveals a shocking plot point that turns the entire story on its head and makes us rethink the entire movie we're watching.

Technically, this film is highly accomplished, more than just about any of the other high-profile horror movies to come out of Asia in recent years. From the complex plot, to the perfect casting and gorgeous cinematography every aspect of this film is a wonder to behold. Its ability to creep out the viewer is inspiring: it has a control over light and shadow that is amazing. Even what happens during the day is spooky, as the film has a beautiful portrait to it, a mix of flashy colors and shadows that lends it a surrealistic feel. The house where the entirety of the movie occurs is a truly creepy place where secrets and dangers seem to lurk behind every door. Several sequences such as the ghostly appearances in the girls' rooms and under the sink, as well as the dinner with relatives are the ultimate in creepiness.

Another thing I enjoyed immensely was the chemistry between the two sisters. Obviously the two love each other, are very close and understand each other perfectly. The big sister is always taking care of the little one, the little one always looking to the big sister for guidance. Their strong relationship adds so much to the power of the movie and its eeriness because you feel that something will soon crash down and shatter their little world into pieces. A few of the scenes however were kind of derivative of other Asian fright films such as the woman crawling in the bedroom scene which reminded me suspiciously of the one in Ju-on: the Grudge. Also, the whole idea that some characters might be ghosts is similar to recent thrillers such as "The Others" and "The Sixth Sense". But unlike these two films, "A tale of two sisters" stands much better to numerous repeat viewings because the twist is not at the heart of everything. Beautiful and tragic, this one's a must if you love Asian ghost chillers.

Read Best Reviews of Tale of Two Sisters Here

"A Tale of Two Sisters" meets 2 criteria of great cinema. First, this is the kind of film you think about long after you have watched it -days, weeks, MONTHS after you have watched it. And second, this is a film that demands -commands -repeated viewings, and it just keeps getting better each time. Haunting and stunning images shot brilliantly, a plot that thickens richly, and layers of meaning and possible meanings that unravel (then reravel, then unravel again) like a great chess match. KIM Jee-Woon, I believe, is to the early 21st century what Hitchcock was to the 50's and 60's. Western filmmakers have a new standard to meet. In addition, as the other Tartan Asia Extreme releases, the dvd is digitally mastered masterfully -sound and color to bring out the best in HD home theaters.

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Based on a Korean folktale, writer/director Kim Jee-Won (The same guy who gave us the fantastic "A Bittersweet Life" ) has crafted an intelligent, absorbing piece of psychological terror that may stay with you for a long time. "A TALE OF TWO SISTERS" is the type of film that may sometimes confuse the viewer, but that confusion is part of its compelling and immersive nature. Pseudo-intellectuals will no doubt have a ball trying to de-code just what this film is all about. The film is part ghost story and part psychological thriller and does not rely on gross-out sequences or cheap scares. Yes, you guessed it, this fabulous film has been marked by Hollywood for remake hell, the news of this just made me cringe.

Two very close sisters, Su-mi (Im Su-Jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-Young) return home to their father's dark and foreboding house after a stay in the hospital. Su-mi, the elder of the two, have always been protective of Su-yeon. Their stepmother, Eun-joo (played by beauteous Yeom Jung-Ah) have ruled the household with an iron fist; and meek Su-yeon is incapable of defending herself against the abuse by the stepmother. Their father is taciturn and burdened while Eun-joo greets the two with forced enthusiasm. The two sisters are now back after a long absence in the household, living under the same roof with their stepmother is a nightmare for them. To make matters worse, strange things begin to occur. A strange terrifying presence is being felt in the house. Is this the stepmother trying to scare them or something more sinister?

"A Tale of Two Sisters" is anything but a conventional supernatural horror film. The film draws its strengths from the way it is structured, the film is methodical, cryptic, sometimes confusing and is perfect for multiple viewings. The number of subtle details and clues almost seem endless, the story will catch you by surprise and cause you to drop your guard. One would do well in watching it more than once just so you can see its depths of its script. The first time I saw this film, I was a little annoyed but after awhile, it dawned on me that this film may actually be one of the most compelling psychological horror thrillers I've seen in a long time.

The film is actually divided into two acts. The first act deals with the sisters return, while the second half is actually more fragmented than one would think. The first act gives the clues and subtle details. The questions you have to ask yourself are: 1) What is happening to this family? 2) How did it come to this? 3) Why is their father acting so insensitive? The answers are there, and one needs to pay attention. The second half is where all the answers lie, most of the answers are told backwards and the viewer will have to put the sequences all together.

The film's foreshadowing holds back the answers in a very compelling manner. The twists and turns will force the viewer to work and the more you see, the more the viewer will get sucked in. Those easily frustrated and annoyed would be well off watching it with someone with a knack for putting together Lynchian-type thrillers. Patience is a must for this type of film. Make certain that the film has your undivided attention, the hints and clues are there. I promise you that the film is set up quite well, and the answers will be there---Well, at least most of the answers, anyway. The film is a clever blend of fantasy, memory and the supernatural. The film won't encourage you to become indifferent but will create an atmosphere full of puzzling structure that works well, so well that it is similar to a fable and a mind-bender; both aspects work in harmony and complements everything else.

Aside from its involving storyline, the film's cinematography and direction is the film's biggest strength. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, but maintains that dark and ominous feel. The lighting effects and the atmosphere exudes sheer creepiness, all the while looking quite alluring. The spectacular screenplay is also matched by the cast's powerful performances. Look closely, and you will see the intricacies of the two sisters and their relationship to their parents. Key elements in their roles are played well by Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun-Young. Their change of emotions are one of the film's very effective trump cards. Beauteous Yeum Jung-Ah (Tell Me Something) is excellent, she plays the stepmother with frightening fervor and an unhinged vitality.

Before I begin to ruin the film's experience and start listing the things to look for, I think I should stop here. I have seen this film two times before, and the third time I saw it to prepare for this review, I even uncovered some much more deeper details to the film which I believed I may have missed the first two times. This is the beauty of this film, the film's impact is so compelling that it remains in my mind. The film's ambition is so far reaching that its wonderful experience will be derived from the effort in trying to find all the subtle clues and details.

Don't expect a bloody "gorefest" or a conventional horror film that relies on scares when you watch this film. The film's beauty borders more on the cerebral side and its psychological aspects will more than likely make the most experienced movie watcher (like me) work. The subtle involvement of ghosts, the traditional imagery that almost gives it an old-fashioned feel is terrific. I hate to take back something I've stated before in my review of "Spider Forest" but I have to say it; "A Tale of Two Sisters" may well match or even exceed "Spider Forest" in terms of compelling material and screenplay (after this third viewing).Those who love mind-benders and psychological horror will be delighted, for this film is one of the very best horror films from South Korea.


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