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Original Title:
Janghwa, Hongryeon

South Korea 2003

Horror, Thriller

Kim Ji-woon

Lim Su-jeong
Mun Geun-yeong
Yum Jung-ah
Kim Kap-su

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A Tale of Two Sisters

Story: After quite some time sisters Su-mi (Lim Su-jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-yeong) return to their old home together with their father (Kim Kap-su).
The more vigorous Su-mi is protecting her quiet and introverted sister Su-yeon from the psychological and physical abuse of their stepmother (Yum Jung-ah). Something isn't right about their stepmother. Additionally, the house itself seems strange to Su-mi in an unexplainable way, too.
When Su-mi tells her father about the tyranny of their stepmother, he just doesn't want to hear anything about it. He also acts quite uncommon.
The first night in the house, the two sisters even start to hear strange sounds and see shadows everywhere they look. Is there a ghost, who wants to tell Su-mi something? Or maybe it just seeks revenge? The only thing for sure is, that something terrible must have happened in that house, and in some way the whole family is linked to it.
While the two sisters are still grieving about their deceased mother, the stepmother turns their life into hell on earth in a very subtle manner. But with time, she doesn't seem to be the worst problem, as Su-mi finally starts to discover something about her past...

Review: Sometimes there are movies that are so unique that it's not possible to compare them with any other one. "A Tale of Two Sisters" is one of those rare pieces. With an incredible tense atmosphere and impressive dark visual brilliance, director Kim Ji-woon ("The Quiet Family", "The Foul King") tells the story of two girls and their mysterious past, which is based on an old Korean folk tale. Here, the horror is somewhat more subtle than in any other horror movie, although there are also some shocking moments.
Mainly, the movie is build upon its characters and fathoms the past of the protagonists until every skeleton in the closet is discovered (almost literally). The psychological terror works perfectly thanks to an intelligent story, and makes your blood run cold.

The first half of the movie is very slow-paced and the several characters are introduced to us. Soon, we get to know that no one is the one he/she appears to be. There is the evil and insidious stepmother, who is played so grandiosely by Yum Jung-ah ("Tell me Something"), that it's just fun to watch her. Despite of all evilness, she manages to radiate her own style of charm. Meanwhile, the audience is still trying to find out what's just not right about her and which secrets she covers up.

Even more fathomless is the father, who is portrayed very convincingly by Kim Kap-su. What is he hiding and we is he ignoring his daughters' cry for help?
Which brings us to the two main actresses. Lim Su-jeong gives a versatile and wonderful performance as the protecting big sister and can almost bring the film forward on her own. Nevertheless, with Mun Geun-yeong, who should become even more popular in following comedy-romances like "My little Bride", the movie has another good actress in petto, who shines as the fragile and fearful little sister.

As already said, the movie starts somewhat slow, which is also the movie's only weak point. But those who think that this also means everything on the screen would be unimportant, is making a big mistake! May it be ever so little, every detail is important, which we will only get aware of retrospectively. Nothing is just an random fact, and so the observant viewer will get rewarded with quite some revelations.

At the end, we don't get a twist in the last few seconds, but instead we suddenly get aware, that the whole movie was working towards it. Every little hint, every single dialogue is, in a very stunning way, turning into a big whole , which will catch you off-guard for sure. But even after this great resolving, there are still various questions left unanswered. Which nevertheless can be answered easily by the viewer, because the movie gives you more than enough clues. Yes, there are even so many, that there are several possible interpretations, but this is also what makes the movie so special. However, the end of the movie is highly satisfying, contrary to other movies with a more or less open end.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" is one of those rare pieces that have to be seen more than just once, in order to fully understand and appreciate it.
The end once more shows the director's perfection, because now everything is moved into a more clear light and all those little clues that were scattered in the movie become real gold. It's rare that the audience is offered so much of value in a movie.

The visuals of his work, Kim Ji-woon didn't leave to chance neither. With finely composed pictures, that stand out because of somber light, lots of shadows and pale colors, he manages to create his own style.
At the beginning, there is some nice countryside idyll, and right after this there is the big, rustic, dark house, which with time, becomes even more dusky and threatening. The setting can really add to a movie and Kim just knew this, because every use of light, every furniture and every flowered wallpaper is minutely elaborated, to make the depressive, enigmatic, dark atmosphere even more tense.

With great camera shots and a subtle, but sometimes also intrusive soundtrack, we are teached the meaning of fear. Most of the time this is done without the typical ghost-horror. Instead the movie focuses on psychological terror. However, the movie also has some rather direct scenes, that will let you forget breathing.
Mainly, it's the unpredictable motives of the characters that will give you goose pimples, or scenes like the one where we follow a track of blood ending at a bloody tied up bag. Who or what might be in there?

After a somewhat slow opening, the second half kicks in more tense, despite not being fast paced at all. We don't get a single break, the thoughts of the viewer chaoticly go in circles and the psycho-terror delivers more than one climax.
Only the slow opening and way too many questions, that will scare off some of the more impatient viewers, prevents me from giving it the best rating. Which doesn't change the fact, that "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a little masterpiece and a highlight of the genre, thanks to its great story, an excellent atmosphere and a wonderful cast. Absolutely recommendable!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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