Saturday, June 23, 2012

The benefit of the doubt: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

I hated A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) the first time I watched it. Well, to be more specific, I loved it until the very end and then I hated it. It was the story of two young sisters moving into an old house with their father and their new step-mother. It was beautiful and slow and involving, and then I got to the end and was so frustrated by the twists that it ruined the whole movie for me. It seemed like the only way it made sense was if everyone in the movie was crazy. I felt betrayed by my investment in the characters and the film itself.

I never really intended to give it another chance. But then last year I watched another film by the director, Kim Jee-Woon. His revenge thriller I Saw the Devil was also beautiful, and held together so perfectly that I wondered if maybe I had missed something when watching Sisters.

So I sat down to watch it again, this time already knowing the movie's secrets, hoping that I'd been wrong. And right from the very beginning, I could tell that I had. Everything was intentional, from the timing of certain shots to the smallest expression on a character's face. All of it hinted at something coming, every shot served to build up just the right tension.

And again I was impressed with how beautiful it was, with how amazing the actors were (especially Moon Geun Young as Su-yeon, whose constant confused sadness is heartbreaking, and Yeom Jeong-ah as the now-sinister, now-manic Eun-joo). In some ways this movie is a spiritual sister to The Others. It is beautiful and sad and strange, and it is much more about tragedy than about horror.

But then the horror is amazing as well. A scene early in the film starts out as just another Japanese-influenced "long-black-haired girl-ghost" scare, until you notice that the ghost's head is twisted strangely to the side. And then you hear the slight creaking sound, and the gentle back and forth swaying of the ghost, even as she walks forward. She is hanging. It's a connection between the ghost and her death that suddenly makes that same old black hair frightening again, like when I first saw Samara's inhuman movement in The Ring.

Kim Jee-Woon is a meticulous and imaginative director. There are twists, at the end, and then there are reveals unrelated to that twist. It is a layered and uncommonly satisfying ending. My original impression, that the movie only made sense if every character was crazy, is sort of embarrassing now. I could only have come to that conclusion because I wasn't paying enough attention.  This is a careful and intelligent film. The director was giving me the benefit of the doubt, and I didn't hold up my end of the bargain.


  1. Oh, yeah. Loved this film. Always meant to go back and rewatch it to see the setup. Glad it worked for you the second time around.

  2. I haven't seen all of this one, but I love Korean films. Have you seen any of Chan-wook Park's films (that aren't Oldboy)? Also have you seen the monster movie The Host? They are all great.

  3. I really liked this movie too and went in knowing about the main twist, but the way everything tied up left me a little confused as well. Maybe I'll see it again!

  4. I'll throw in a vote for The Host as well. Good film.

  5. I think I need to re-watch this one. I originally watched it years ago when I was just starting to look into Asian horror and came to a conclusion similar to your first impression.

    Also, I was almost certain he had already written something on The Host and the depiction of family within it, but I can't seem to find it.

  6. it's funny, it's been a while since i watched this, and my impression was sort of similar to yours, however, more in the sense that it would have been a better movie if everyone actually -had- been crazy. which is to say, to me it felt like kim jee woon started out with a really clever and delicately plotted movie about grief and family malfunction, and then some producer just demanded more Wet Haired Ghost Girls, in the process turning it into a clumsy and internally confusing k-horror movie. i remember thinking it would have been a really good movie if there weren't any ghosts, in part because of all the really subtle touches and bits of setup all through the movie.

    perhaps, however, i too just need to give it another viewing?

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  8. There's a reason why Hollywood has been so busy in recent years remaking Asian horror movies. Scare for scare, they're generally better.

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