I know I promised to do these film reviews with some semblance of regularity but things got in the way: art shows, the discovery of a new fish market near our apartment, drinking (always drinking), trekking through Nepal and a visit from my parents. So I apologise. Deeply and profoundly. And offer you this, my thoughts on another example of Korean horror: this is one hell of a film, completely defying the idea that one thing leads to another. During every movie we watch our brain makes hundreds of tiny connections through which we understand, decipher and appreciate. A Tale of Two Sisters, however, is determined to make this process as difficult as possible.
It opens in a psychiatric hospital ward: the perfect setting for a film to be told in reverse. Su-mi is questioned by a doctor who, after receiving no response, pushes a photo of her family across the table. Cue the story (whether it be past or future, we're never sure): a much less haggard Su-mi exits a car with her sister, Su-yeon, and stands in the shadow of a house both seem to recognise and neither wish to enter. The girls run to play at the riverside wharf until called inside by their step-mother. From this point, barely ten minutes in, the film cements its gender position: Two Sisters is a film not about siblings but about women. Female power is expressed through loyalty to memory, jealousy and the fear of loss. Both sisters lament the death of their mother but Su-mi is fiercely opposed to the step-mother's presence who, in turn, uses discipline as a form of parental pretence. Her every motherly effort is edged with her own knowledge that she isn't welcome, paired with a refusal to accept this rejection. It is this stubbornness that makes her ugly. Her beauty is overshadowed by the lingering shots on her face and shoulders; almost instantaneously she is set up as a threat but what gives her such force is the envy she directs at the daughters and her own suspicion that they will succeed in pushing her from the family. Each scene comprising these three women is tense with things unsaid and overtures unmade. But I for one wanted some answers. Su-mi's fury could have been extraordinary if her reasons for such hatred were given room to move before the closing scenes.
First impressions suggest a straightforward collection of characters including two sisters, a father and step-mother but through a series of complicated flashbacks and dream sequences, I was left not really knowing who anybody was; there are two sisters, no there's only one, oh wait the other one lives inside the other, no she is real but isn't around any more, and now the other sister is the step-mother as well, okay no they are definitely two people but the step-mum was in the picture beforehand, the mother is dead but she seems to be haunting them, now there might be another ghost, oh right it's over. Suddenly this demure main cast of four seems much bigger and the effect is anything but successful. These switches are confusing and over complicated by the slow speed of the scenes. Korean cinema is famous for the beauty and exactitude of its shots but they are best utilised in films with single plot structures. Two Sisters comprises so many twists designed to throw the watcher off that it accomplishes its goal far too completely. What are two relatively simple story lines are butchered and combined in an attempt to create psychological synergy; the seams are just too visible. Place on top of this an unrelenting sense of suspense and the film becomes a hypocrite of itself. Horror is designed as a surprise genre where sharp sudden scares are what keep you on your toes. The horror in Two Sisters is too prevalent, too continuously possible. Both ethereal and physical violent manifestations lurked in the corners of each scene and the stress of waiting for them was overwhelming. When every minute of a film threatens to uncover something nasty the story can quite easily slip you by. And woe betide you if the story happens to be as astoundingly perplexing as this one.
The film's director, Kim Ji-woon, began his career in the theatre, a fact that is immediately obvious due to his use of colour and space. Vivid red shades are a constantly recurring image in the form of clothing, shoes, cupboard doors and flowers. And, of course, blood. The function of these objects is to hint toward eventual violence and while it's a heavy-handed symbol, the scenes in which they are included are visual poetry because they are so wonderful in their aesthetic balance. I have a deep and abiding love for the methods Korean film makers utilise to make dark scenes seem light with colour alone. Poorly lit interior settings are illuminated by a piece of clothing or table top or coat of make-up. Sunny exterior shots are made dangerous with shadows and discoloured buildings. The point is, they are never too heavily portrayed in either direction. Kim employs space in a similar way. While I remain steadfast in my belief that his timing would have improved had he directed them with more speed, spatially they are perfectly measured. In each outdoor scene the amount of surrounding landscape is directly related to the emotional state of the character, as are closeted indoor shots used to focus on isolation and desperation. No matter how much space in the shot, no character ever seems too small. Unless that is the aim. And of course, when necessary, a single body fills the entire scene. As if by cinematic magic.
So what would I make of this film overall? I stand by my judgement on the story: too complex, never clearly expounded and far too tense. I appreciate psychological thrillers and don't mind a movie taking advantage of supernatural elements to scare me stupid but A Tale of Two Sisters was too concerned with its own ability to frighten. If it had a voice I imagine it would say, 'are you frightened now? What about now? And now and now?' Despite these detrimental shortcomings it is a beautiful looking piece of cinema. The cast are not simply attractive (a given when studying these films) – they are beautiful in their emotions. The trembling torment of the step-mother, Su-mi's living sorrow, even the largely absent father's bewilderment; all are poignantly memorable and almost make up for the exhaustive process necessary to finish this film. Try and get to the end but if you don't, I will sympathise.
Lara looks even better than this after a heavy night of drinking and horror watching.