The film opens with Bae Sumi (Im Sujeong), a girl who is being treated in a psychiatric institution. Some time after, she returns home, accompanied by her father Muhyeon (Gim Gapsu) and her younger sister Suyeon (Mun Geunyeong). There, the girls encounter their new stepmother, Heo Eunju (Yeom Jeong-a), who tries to be nice to them in front of their father, but quickly loses patience with the girls, who don't like her either. However, all the women of the household begin encountering some spooky occurrences as the tension between the increasingly unhinged Sumi and Eunju begins to boil.
There is a lot at play in A Tale of Two Sisters, but the wonderful thing about the film is that it's almost two movies at once. Yes, there is a supernatural horror element as we see some pretty creepy images alongside the household's women, but the psychological horror, especially the things that are hinted at but never fully revealed, like the matter of Suyeon's closet and the reason for the grudge between Sumi and Eunju, are the elements that truly drive the tension. What's more, the first time you watch this film will be vastly different than future times because of its twist, which completely reframes the movie. What's more, there is a lot of depth to the twist, deeply embedded in Sumi's character and hinted at by the veiled references to the traumatic past event which the psychiatrist (I Daeyeon) mentions at the start of the film. And then, the ripple of the film's ultimate themes echo throughout the whole film and make quite an impact by the time the credits role, the double revelation at the end excellently providing an understanding of why the women of the household are acting the way that they are.
On top of all that, the densely colored production design heightens all of the tension, with its darkly colored house, its deep reds, greens and blues in the main areas of the house and contrasted with lighter colors in the girls' respective rooms. The ornate wallpapering and thoughtful attention to wardrobe also all adds to the overall access to the character's mindsets and the sense of history in the richly designed house. Director Gim and his cinematographer I Mogae work the production design well, lighting the house with incandescent and shooting it exquisitely, giving every frame the kind of richness built into the production and Gim doesn't use much flashy direction or editing, so when it appears, it means something.
The sound design is perfect, yes there are some jump scares and Psycho inspired slashing strings, but the soundtrack is often sparse and uses the rear fields well, giving the film greater dimensionality. What's more, I Byeong-u simple but haunting score, with its piano and guitar, is not only memorable in itself, but captures a sense of wistful memory and regret that perfectly resonates with some of the themes in A Tale of Two Sisters.
Finally, all the performers are excellent here, with Yeom Jeong-a especially creating a sense of unease with her increasingly unhinged Eunju--the back-and-forth between moments of mania and darkness, especially how she hides menace behind her smiles, makes this a highly frightening performance and quite possibly one of the best evil stepmothers committed to screen. The girls really capture a sense of sisterhood between them, especially in their quiet moments together and Im Sujeong definitely captures adolescent rebellion well, which Mun's often huge eyed looks relays great fear without words. Even the Gim Gapsu manages an impressive amount of exasperation in his character and while he seems aloof in the first viewing, later viewings actually reveal more depth to even his character.
And all this put together makes A Tale of Two Sisters one of the finest horror films that I have ever seen. Everything works together in this film, from the story to the direction, to the cinematography, the production design, the wardrobe, the performances, and even the soundtrack and score, to create a double-film that is not just captures a genuine sense of horror on both the surface spooky ghost level, but on the psychological level as well and furthermore manages to be about guilt, mental illness, and a desire to fix the past in the present that makes the story compelling. And for that, I think A Tale of Two Sisters is also still my favorite film by director Gim Jiun. It is not to be missed for those that like horror films as well as psychological dramas. A film that only seems to gain more of my respect each time I watch it. Highly recommended. Except for people that can't take the horror of course. 10/10
- Director: 김지운
- Writer: 김지운
- Principal Cast: 김갑수, 문근영, 염정아, 임수정
- Feature Netflix
- At Daum, IMDb, Naver, Wikipedia (en|ko)
- More Reviews: City on Fire, eastern Kicks, Far East Films, Hanguk Yeonghwa, Hangul Celluloid, Koreanfilm.org, metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes
- Available at Amazon (US Region 1 DVD) and YesAsia (KR Region A Blu Ray)