Kim's disorienting angles and wide, revealing pans generate much of the fright in this otherwise well-tread territory, which parades out some familiar Korean horror themes: haunted children; child bonds strong enough to challenge the finality of death; neurotic stepmothers with grim secrets behind their veils of domesticity; dangerously excessive femininity; big, haunted homes; and impotent, ineffectual fathers. Two teenage sisters, Im Su-Jeong (in a dramatically commanding performance) and the meek Mun Geun-Yeoung arrive at their father's opulent countryside home after a stint in some kind of psychiatric hospital. The stepmother (played with futile stoicism and unhinged anxiety by Yeom Jeong-Ah) tries to make the girls comfortable, despite the frequent confrontations with the petulant Im, who knows something dark is hidden in the woman's past, and just possibly within the house too. The truth of the family's relationship is far too tangled to be easily resolvable, and Kim finally resorts to a jumbled montage to re-address the final act, which ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
This may be a disappointment, given the fresh blocking and unusual over- and behind-the-head shots that generate most of the movie's frightening moments and keep the story moving forward, seemingly toward a cogent conclusion. However, despite the ghost of The Sixth Sense which hangs over much of Korean horror and the expectations of epiphanic revelations it entails, the genre is more successful when you don't demand explanations and allow the directors to slowly mete the guilt and fear out of the characters. In this way, A Tale of Two Sisters succeeds in keeping the character's anxiety alive even to the end of the movie and through the dénouement, which keeps the horror just a touch on our side of reality, capable of haunting you even several days after leaving the theatre. This kind of irresolvable tension owes much to the influence of Japanese horror.
The horror genre in Asia has traditionally been dominated by the so-called J-horror - the Japanese horror phenomenon that sees a lot of young girls in pajamas with dark, raggedy hair hanging in their shriveled, lethal faces. But as Korean cinema rose to regional prominence (and domination) over the last few years, a new, so-called K-horror has risen to challenge the Japanese authority. At its worst, as in Phone, it borrows heavily from the established Japanese tropes; but at its best, as in Sorum, it finds a haunting new voice, gravelly and threatening in its realism. But, more often than not, as in this movie, K-horror splits the difference.
You can read a lot about the friction of this influence from the A Tale of Two Sisters poster advertisement. The spectacular, arresting posters (probably the best I've seen) promise the familiar (bloody young girls in their jammies) but also imply the film's secret weapon: fantastic, haunting, and carefully controlled earth-tone imagery - devices often foregone in favor of a swirl of blank modernity and techno-static in their J-horror counterparts. In the poster, a domestic floral pattern creeps over the furniture, and in the movie, this same paisley arrangement almost fully overtakes the house, providing a falsely comforting backdrop for the grim mess that later unfolds, or splatters, upon it. Besides highlighting the regional differences in the genre, this is another testament to Kim's photographic eye: in addition to his framing, he has an innate sense for off-putting textural juxtapositions and colors, which is perhaps more than you can say for his ability to arrange and sequence a scary movie. But, fortunately for us, that's not a deficiency that makes this picture any less haunting.
The DVD includes commentary track and a second disc of extras: Deleted scenes, documentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and much more.
Aka Janghwa, Hongryeon.
Run time: 115 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th June 2003
Distributed by: Tartan Films
Production compaines: Troma, Troma Entertainment, L.A. Dreams Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 50 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Producer: Ji-woon Kim
Screenwriter: Ji-woon Kim
Starring: Claudia Christian as Elizabeth 'Liz', Valerie Breiman as Phil, Brian Belknap as Gravedigger, Peter Berg as Gardener, Jeff Conaway as Taxi driver, Dee Coppola as Mom, Samantha Culp as Bug girl, Charlie Sheen as Narrator, Tom Hodges as Aunt Sparkle / Butler, Laurianne Jameson as Housekeeper / murderous woman on beach, Sydney Lassick as Dad, Robert Munic as Prince / Jester, Danielle von Zerneck as Adult Bug Girl, Charity Katz as Young Elizabeth 'Liz'