A Tale of Two Sisters


posted to www.marxmail.org on December 16, 2004


Produced in South Korea, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is the latest and most artistically realized horror film to come out of East Asia in the genre of "Ringu" and "Ju-On," which were made in Japan. These sorts of films rely more on mood and psychological insight than on flashy special effects. It also shares with them a focus on the dysfunctional family and child abuse.


The plot of "A Tale of Two Sisters" evokes classic Grimm fairy tales of children being victimized by a cruel elder. In this case, we are dealing with two teenaged sisters who have returned from an extended hospital stay to the country estate of their wealthy physician father and his sadistic new wife. Their mother has died under mysterious circumstances. It is also not clear whether the sisters' ailments were physical or mental.


Under director Kim Jee-Woon's sure hands, the film grows creepier by the minute. Although the lavish home has beautiful gardens and spacious, well-furnished rooms, there is something off about them from the start--especially the ornate floral wallpaper that begins to almost pulsate when the camera hones in on it. The wallpaper evokes toxicity and danger, not comfort and reassurance. Eventually it becomes along with the house itself a kind of actor in this Gothic tale, a Korean version of the house described by Edgar Allen Poe in "Fall of the House of Usher":


"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was --but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible."


It would seem that Kim Jee-Woon has a flair for macabre tales set in country estates. His 1998 "The Quiet Family" is a black comedy about a family that moves to the country to run a bed and breakfast. When guests feel inspired one after one to commit suicide in the house, the family works overtime to conceal the bodies. Besides sharing a creepy house with "A Tale of Two Sisters," the two films share a father figure who seems impervious to everything around them. In "Two Sisters," the father is blissfully unaware of the strange goings on in his house. In "The Quiet Family," the father rises from the dinner table, walks off screen, and proceeds to kick the family dog, before returning to the table to resume eating as nothing has happened. In a voice-over, his daughter explains that the tension of disposing of all the corpses has gotten to him.


It is not clear whether the director's avoidance of special effects is driven by a tight budget or by style. Whatever the case, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is far more expert in the tools that it works with than the typically bloated Hollywood horror film. This is especially true with respect to the sound effects, which are unlike any I have encountered in any other film. The house is alive with bizarre night sounds coming from within its innards that drive the two sisters over the edge, along with everything else in this truly haunted house.


"A Tale of Two Sisters" has the same kind of ambiguity as Henry James's "Turn of the Screw." Even in the final scenes, we are never quite sure whether the gruesome events taking place are in the children's minds or actually taking place. In the conventional Hollywood horror movie, from Psycho to Halloween, there is always a psychiatrist to explain the events of the film at the conclusion, neatly tying a string around the package. In "A Tale of Two Sisters," we leave the theater unsure of what happened. The characters are haunted and so are we.


Kim Jee-Woon was clearly inspired by "Ringu," the Japanese flick that was remade in the USA as "The Ring." Koji Suzuki, the author of the novel that the film was based on, is known as the Stephen King of Japan. His novels and the East Asian horror films he has inspired share King's preoccupation with the hidden menace of everyday objects. In "Ringu," the telephone and the VCR become as threatening as a meat cleaver. In "A Tale of Two Sisters," the wallpaper threatens to detach itself from the wall and attack the audience crouched in their seats.


All of these works also share a sense that the nuclear family is falling apart at the seams. For the better part of two decades, Japan and South Korea were seen as embodying all of the traditional values of middle-class life. With growing economic insecurity, novelists and film directors are bound to reflect anxiety about the future..


In an interview, Kim-Jee Woon answered the question about the relationship of his movies to reality in the following manner:


"I think a movie is at the borderline between the reality and some other world. For me, expressing the real world with the real language is not very fun. But, expressing the real world with fantastic, film language is more fun. I think that film is a door from the real world to the other world, to the other side…And ultimately, film is about digging from another world into what's going on in the reality."


"A Tale of Two Sisters" opens in NYC at Cinema Village on December 17th. Highly recommended.