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A TALE OF TWO SISTERS

This Korean film is among the most visually expressive ghost stories youíll ever experience--and also among the most convoluted and confusing! 

The Package 
     Kim Jee-woon is one of South Koreaís top filmmakers, having debuted with the highly regarded QUIET FAMILY in 1998 (the basis for Takashi Miikeís THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS) and the equally esteemed FOUL KING in 2000.  More recently he made the film festival sensation THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (2008). 
     2003ís A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (JANGHWA, HONGRYEON) is Kim Jee-woonís most successful film by far, and the only one to garner any kind of significant release in the West.  Itís become one of the most acclaimed K-horror films of recent years, and was remade by Hollywood in 2009.  Iím apparently the only person whoís not over the moon about the film; I like and admire it, certainly, but... 

The Story
     Young Su-mi and her little sister Su-yeon move into their fatherís country house.  Unfortunately the place is also inhabited by the girlsí mean stepmother Eun-ju--and at least one unquiet spirit!
     At first Eun-ju seems overly cordial toward the girls.  However, she reveals her true colors when she begins tormenting Su-yeon, against whom she bears an evident grudge.  Eun-ju also acts plenty weird, watching staticy TV screens and freaking out a nice couple who come to the house to have dinner.
     Eventually Eun-juís torment of Su-yeon grows downright monstrous.  Su-mi confronts her father with this fact; he reacts by telling her that Eun-ju has been dead for several years! 
     Another surprise is in store for Su-mi (and the viewer) when Eun-ju begins tormenting her...until the latter is confronted by Eun-ju in an entirely different outfit and attitude.  Whatís real and what isnít?? 

The Direction 
     This film has a simple enough premise reminiscent of past films like THE OTHER and FIGHT CLUB, but itís as complex and multi-layered in its execution as nearly anything you can think of.  Sorting out whoís dead and who isnít becomes quite a chore, as does discerning whatís real and whatís not, or even who it is weíre watching.  Sudden viewpoint shifts are common, as are unexplained flash-forwards.  By the end itís made clear, courtesy of several convoluted flashbacks, that no less than three central characters--or at least certain facets of those characters--are actually a single person, and that the facts of the narrative are quite different from what weíve been shown.  A DVD extra has a psychiatrist weighing in on the psychological complexities of the film, and I believe youíll have to be a psychiatrist to fully sort out what happens.
     Where A TALE OF TWO SISTERS works best is as a purely visual and atmospheric spectacle.  The cinematography by Lee Mogae has a seductively dark shimmer, shunning brightness or excessive contrast.  The visuals complement the spare, quiet aura of the film, which contains very few conventional scares.  The coiled, muted atmosphere put me in mind of a held breath, or possibly a stifled scream; given the content, Iíd say both metaphors are entirely appropriate.
 

Vital Statistics 

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
iPictures

Director: Kim Jee-woon
Producer: Oh Ki-min
Screenplay: Kim Jee-woon
Cinematography: Lee Mogae
Editing: Ko Im-pyo
Cast: Yeom Jeong-A, Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Kim Kab-su
 


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