Robin CliffordAfter Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) is released from a mental institution, she and her younger sister Su-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) arrive at the family's fairy-tale country house where a wicked stepmother, Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum, "Tell Me Something"), torments the girls in "A Tale of Two Sisters."
Writer/director Ji-woon Kim ("The Quiet Family") leaps to the forefront of Asian horror with this brilliantly executed psychological nightmare. Ji-woon plants seeds of doubt with the viewer right from the get-go that all is not what it seems, yet not until dad (Kap-su Kim) drops a bombshell near film's end does all the weirdness make sense.
Su-mi and Su-yeon take their time entering the house, idling on a wharf and taking in nature. Their hesitation is justified when, once inside the door, a young woman glides down the hall, a little too quickly, to accuse them of their petty crime. Su-mi is startled when she goes to place her diary in a desk and discovers it already there. Her closet is full of multiple pieces of the same clothing. Su-yeon, meanwhile, is terrified of the cupboard in her room. Nighttime brings a creeping visitor to Su-yeon, who runs to Su-mi. Su-mi is plagued by nightmares of a woman positioned like a scarecrow and visions of blood running down the leg of the figure. In the morning, Su-mi discovers her younger sister has begun to menstruate. When she tells her stepmother, Eun-joo replies 'How could we both get our periods on the same day?'
A visit from Eun-joo's brother and his wife is a dismal affair with Eun-joo antically trying to entertain the glum family until sister-in-law Mi-hee has a violent convulsion and sees a hideous figure under the kitchen sink. Su-mi appeals to her father to intercede with their stepmother, whom he delivers meds to periodically, but he is strangely withdrawn, his hair having the look of having gone white overnight. When Eun-joo's lovebirds are found dead in their cage, father does take charge and buries them in the woods.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" is a psychological puzzle with an escalating sense of dread and some genuine creeps. This is a first class production, excellently acted - particularly by Su-jeong and Jung-ah - and richly appointed. Art Direction by Geun-hyeon Jo is a marvel of repeating patterns. Never has wallpaper alone held so many secrets (the dining room wallpaper, in fact, is cleverly used in the opening credit sequence). Cinematographer Mo-gae Lee places and moves his camera to accentuate the unnatural events and editor Hyeon-mi Lee ("Take Care of My Cat") heightens the effect with his cuts. Sound, always a most essential element of a horror film, has the industrial whoosh of a David Lynch film in its quiet moments and the unsettling ticks and clicks of other Asian flicks like "Ju-On: The Grudge" during its shockers. Original Music by Byung-woo Lee ("Untold Scandal") is orchestral, with subtle themes from carnival and circus music adding to the freaky fairy tale feel.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" is more than just a horror film. This one floats into the realm of masterpiece. Repeat viewings, once the major twist is known, should only increase appreciation of its artistry.
Robin gives "A Tale of Two Sisters" an A-.
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