Tale of Two Sisters, A (2003)

One of the highest peaks of contemporary K-horror, this is a precise and complexly-layered piece of filmmaking, marked by unbearable suspense, effectively creepy scares and a poignant backstory. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Kim Jee-woon
2003 | South Korea | Drama/Horror | 115 mins | 1.85: 1 | Korean
PG13 (passed clean) for some violence and disturbing images

Cast: Lim Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yum Jung-ah, Kim Kap-su
Plot: Two sisters who, after spending time in a mental institution, return to the home of their father and cruel stepmother. Once there, in addition to dealing with their stepmother’s obsessive and unbalanced ways, an interfering ghost also affects their recovery.
Awards: Official Selection (Busan & Berlin)
Source: Cineclick Asia

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Oldham Theatre – Faces of the Korean Woman (Asian Film Archive)
Spoilers: No

There’s something very precise about Kim Jee-woon’s filmmaking approach here that effectively elevates the film’s suspense and dials up the quality of the scares. 

In the building up of tension, he doesn’t waste any shot, be it a slow creep towards a slightly ajar door that has been inexplicably opened, or multiple disquieting shot-reverse shots that lead up to a plot reveal. 

A Tale of Two Sisters is one of the creepiest films I’ve seen, and its ‘essence’ lingers on for days.  (I’ve had to turn on my kitchen lights to the fullest at night, and even then, I still feel uncomfortable.)  It is also a very popular horror movie, often considered to be one of the highest peaks of contemporary K-horror in the 2000s. 

This is a film about a dysfunctional family and how that translates into a ‘haunted house’ tale.  The two sisters in question are the older Soo-mi and younger Soo-yeon, who are very close to each other.  They live with their father and stepmother, but suffer from psychological problems to varying degrees. 

“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. “

After a trip back home from the mental institution, they become haunted by past and present.  To say more would be to do a disservice to Kim’s brilliant and complexly-layered screenplay. 

A Tale of Two Sisters is one of those rare horror movies that engages both the viscera and intellect.  It gives you deep dread, yet also provokes you to mentally connect with its fragmentary storytelling style. 

There are twists and turns, often in the form of strategic scares, and perhaps this is where Kim’s film succeeds most admirably, that is, he is able to integrate narrative structure, unreliable depictions of reality and a poignant backstory together as a coherent whole amidst the incoherence. 

Because of the film’s relentless approach to drawing suspense through psychological uncertainty and pure technique (e.g. editing and sound design), one might even, through the course of the film, experience the same psychological affliction that the sisters suffer. 

Kim’s work is certainly not kind to one’s mental state, but that is the mark of a great horror film, and I mean it to be an absolute compliment when I say that I’ll never revisit it ever again.

Grade: A-




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