* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)
Early on, the scariest thing about A Tale of Two Sisters is the "wicked stepmother". She's much younger than Ju-Mi's and Ju-Yeong's father, smiles a bit too wide and speaks in a voice that's a bit too cheery. She's a bit too forceful in asserting her position as the woman of the house, and there's a mean edge behind her sweet words.
Soon, though, weird things are happening: The girls are seeing ghostly shapes, the father seems oddly unconcerned with what both his wife and daughters are saying, and something seems to be moving objects around. And as things get stranger and stranger, the house gets more tense, until...
A Tale of Two Sisters was described in the festival information as being in the vein of Ringu or Ju-on but with more character drama (thus making it a better movie), but I don't know how accurate an assessment that is. In Ju-on, at least, the supernatural force involved is much more abstract, a raw anger disconnected from any actual person that manifests itself in different ways. Sisters is a much more conventional ghost story whose phantoms are the continuance of tragically dead people.
Its ghosts visually resemble the ones from its Japanese cousins - and can you blame it? The pale, pale face half-hidden behind the black, black hair is a fantastic visual - but to be perfectly honest, the movie that Sisters most reminded me of is American. Not that that movie is really terribly close, once all is said and done, but it's the general feel I got.
The movie is written and directed by Ji-woon Kim, whose first movie, The Quiet Family, was remade as The Happiness of the Katakuris. It's based on a traditional piece of Korean folklore, although the two other versions listed on the IMDB seem to tell very different stories both from what Sisters starts out and ends up as. This version seems to have characters more complex than one expects from a fairy tale. Mr. Kim's script spends more time on getting the nuances of the personalities and mood right than, perhaps, on internal consistency, though I'm willing to admit that I could have missed something. The final resolution is emotionally powerful, but led me to wonder what (besides very effective scares) was going on in the dinner scene.
The cast is very good. Both Su-jeong Lim as 16-year-old Su-Mi and Geun-yeong Mun as 12-year-old Su-Yeong (ages approximate) give the impression of being damaged in different ways, with Su-Mi being outwardly angry as Su-Yeong is in retreat; they're also very believable as sisters. I liked that they aren't just sweet angels set up to be victims. Jung-ah Yun initially seems a bit over-the-top as their stepmother, but toward the end and in flashbacks reveals a different side of the character which made me appreciate her earlier work a lot more. And I particularly liked the trick of the opening scene, set in a mental hospital, where not only is it not immediately clear which sister we're seeing, but the audience can't quite be sure whether the scene is set-up for the action that plays out over the rest of the movie or a flashback book-end.
I'm frustrated as a reviewer here, because I can't sum up my opinion on the movie as a whole without giving away the tack the movie takes. Although I think the script may not be as tight as possible, the atmosphere and emotion is strong enough to merit a recommendation.