This is one of several Asian horror movies that reached U.S. shores in the wake of RING (1998) and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003). Like those two Japanese efforts, this South Korean import received exposure in America around the time that rights were secured to film an American remake. Unlike its predecessors, however, it was not so obvious what DreamWorks hoped to make of the story when refashioning it for U.S. audiences. Unlike the majority of Far East supernatural thrillers to reach the our shores (including the entertaining if incoherent SLEEPING WITH THE DEAD from China and the excellent PHONE from South Korea), A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is decidedly an art house effort, rather than a popular entertainment. Writer-director Kim Jee-Woon makes use of techniques that will be familiar to fans of Eastern ghost stories (e.g., the ghost woman with long black hair obscuring her face); but the scare scenes, though quite effective, are not the film’s raison detre.
Rather, the story is a tragic family drama, in which the supernatural manifestations (when they crop up, which is only intermittently) are externalizations of dark family secrets buried in one of the lead character’s psyche. In fact, based on what is seen in the film, it is debatable whether any of the supernatural phenomena is meant to be real. As one character says:
“Do know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And… and it follows you around like a ghost.”
That pretty much sums up the film’s approach to the supernatural. Fortunately, despite his artistic pretensions, Kim Jee-Woon creates a mounting sense of dread as his tale unfolds: Two sisters return home after a stay in a mental hospital. Readjusting to “normal” life is not easy. Dad is distant and ineffective. Mom is dead, replaced by a step-mom whose attempts at looking cheerful seem almost psychotic in their forced exaggeration — until she drops her happy face and harasses her stepchildren mercilessly. As if all this were not enough, the family’s isolated house in the woods appears to be haunted.
One must emphasize the word “appears,” because most of the supernatural phenomenon is observed by the older daughter, whose stay in a mental hospital renders her perception of reality suspect. Kim Jee-Woon wants us to see the “haunting” as symptomatic of her state of mind and of the tensions within the family. The phantoms may be real, or they may be hallucinations; either way, their root lies in events of the family’s past that everyone would rather forget, and the supernatural intrusions are like literal examples of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” visualized as ghosts rather than neurotic symptoms
The result is an ambitious horror film that was taken seriously by American critics who had dismissed THE GRUDGE only a few months previously. To be fair, one must acknowledge that Kim Jee-Woon’s serious approach has its merits, but it also creates some problems that mar, without ruining, the effectiveness.
This is a movie that is in no hurry to get going. The editing lingers over long takes of the gorgeous photography — either because the images are supposed to be imbued with hidden meaning that takes time to figure out, or just because it all looks so pretty that no one had the heart to pare things down to a faster pace.
The story is also built around a double surprise twist that you will see coming if you pay close attention. The problem is not the surprise — the film plays fair, dropping clues so that you can make sense of what’s happening after the revelation hits — but that the whole point of the story seem to be to build up to this revelation and then stop. In effect, the story keeps its premise hidden from the audience until nearly the end. Then, the revelation of that premise is treated as the climax, even though the revelation does not resolve the story. (Imagine THE SIXTH SENSE if the ending had simply revealed the truth about Bruce Willis character without the character himself realizing it.)
Equally disappointing, after the truth is revealed, Kim Jee-Woon does not leave his viewers on solid ground. The final sequence may be a flashback revealing the source of the family’s grief, or it may be the distorted memories of an institutionalized character — even her wish-fulfillment revenge-justification fantasy.
The film is clever enough in its deceptions to remain an interesting intellectual puzzle that feels as if it is worth sorting out, but that is all it is. Once you have put the pieces in place, you may feel you know what happened. What is, unfortunately, missing is the answer to the obvious question: now that we know what happened in the past, what will happen next?
Presumably, the American remake will tag an upbeat happy ending onto the story. It’s to Kim Jee-Woon’s credit that he did not go for this easy option. It is nice when a director gives his audience credit for being able to sort things out on their own. But it would have been even nicer if he had dropped laid more groundwork for us to extrapolate into the future.
At least one other character (besides the one who has been in a mental hospital) claims to see a ghost in the house. The dialogue takes place during a car ride, during which a colorful tent is somewhat improbably seen, pitched in the middle of the road. The surreal juxtaposition of images seems to indicate that this scene is meant to be taken as another fantasy, imagined in the mind of the mentally disturbed character.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (a.k.a. “Hanghwa, Hongryeon,” 2003). Written and directed by Kim Jee-Woon. Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-yeong Mun