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A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon)

October 29, 2007

My recent foray into Korean movies has been a thoroughly enjoyable one, with solid gold star ratings across the board for everything I’ve seen thus far. I thought I was getting a hang on what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for the genuine masterpiece that is A Tale of Two Sisters.

OK, I know, that’s as hyperbolic as it gets, so I’ll retreat for a second and try and come at it from a different angle.


I like my horror (when I like my horror – sometimes I just go off it altogether, irritated by the overwhelming wave of dross, the stamina-sapping ratio of the unendurable to the really good, the fact that as a genre it is frankly shite at holding it’s own and hardly ever does itself any favours in the public domain), to be like that digression; bewildering. Which is odd because I am, by nature, a fellow of calm and rational analysis, a tad scientific and occasionally lacking in good humour when tested by the indulgences of others. My cinematic tastes can – when I’m pushed or in a crap mood – be somewhat Gecko-esque.

Why am I watching you? Do something interesting.

So, buoyed by the Korean angle, but ever wary of a horror movie touted as anything beyond “it’s OK”, I pushed my copy of the AToTS DVD around the house for a few days, unprepared to notch up my first Korean, and nth horror, disappointment. What the hell was I thinking?

A Tale of Two Sisters is easily the best new (to me) film I’ve seen all year, and other than my annual re-watch of Night of the Demon, the best I’ve seen in 2007 in toto.

Two girls, sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon, return from a period of rest and recuperation to their home; their mother, who we learn has died, has been replaced by the unfriendly and shrill stepmother, Eun-joo. Very soon, Su-mi becomes convinced that not only is Eun-joo evil, but that a terrifying presence inhabits the house. With the help of her sister, she tries to convince her father that something is seriously wrong, but he is bafflingly unconcerned. Gradually, more and more distressing events occur, conspiring to send Su-mi over the edge into a very distressing psychological episode where nothing is as it seems.

It’s almost impossible to give a detailed synopsis of the plot, because it genuinely wouldn’t make any sense, and it’d be so spoiler heavy that it’d ruin any of the astonishing twists which thump into you at about the half way point. Two turns of phrase in particular, one a few moments after the other, will have you in a state of such upheaval that you’ll forget the next few scenes as you try and assimilate them into your understanding. Yes, this is a nothing-is-as-it-seems movie, and it’s quite the most accomplished I’ve seen. I have now watched it through four times and am smiling with the audacity and ease with which it picks you up and spins you round to face another direction.

When you’re feeling that disoriented a director can do almost anything with a story, and there are some genuinely bizarre, horrifying, scary and downright peculiar scenes thrown into the mix here. On a second, third and fourth take, these things iron themselves out and you see the beauty of the movie’s tortuous internal logic, but for a first-sitting, you’re not lost exactly, but you’re wide open for almost anything, and that sense of unease is like being outside Regan McNeill’s bedroom door, poised to go in, and sensing the cold. Anything can happen. Can you bear it? Can you bear to see what’s going to happen?

At one point, Su-mi wakes from a nightmare, only to find herself in the middle of a worse one happening in her room. I was in such a state that, for the first time since I was a child, I was sat there with my hands over my open mouth, unable to breath, heart racing, terrified out of my wits. I have no doubt that anyone who has seen this film will know the scene I mean and experience a chill as they recall it.

There is nothing like this in Western cinema. Nothing. As Gecko’s protégé Bud says, Life comes down to a few moments. This is one of them. Don’t miss it.

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