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A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Janghwa, Hongryeon

Our sorrow was conceived long before our birth

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 115 minutes

UK Certificate: 15


Although his ‘The Foul King’ (2000) remained in number one position at South Korea’s box office for a staggering six months, outside of the festival circuit director/screenwriter Kim Jee-woon seems destined to become best-known in the west not for his own films, but for other people’s remakes of them. Although, for example, his excellent black comedy ‘The Quiet Family’ (1998) is seldom seen, it was the main source of inspiration for Takashi Miike’s madcap musical ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris’ (2002) – and while his ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ is unlikely to screen for long (if at all) in your average British or American cineplex, the English-language remake by Dreamworks, scheduled to begin production in mid-2004, will soon no doubt prove as popular with horror-fans as the Hollywood reworkings of recent Asian horror successes Ringu, The Eye and Ju-on: the Grudge.

Yet it would be a mistake to miss Kim Jee-woon’s original, for even if its story, despite its many reality-checking surprises, is hardly original (drawing, after all, on both a traditional Korean folk tale as well as other horror films from The Shining to The Sixth Sense and The Others), its plush, textured visual style, showing the sort of opulent sensibility normally associated with the works of Wong Kar-Wai (‘In the Mood for Love’, ‘2046’), is something without parallel in horror cinema – and will no doubt be largely lost in its American translation. Put simply, supernatural tragedy has never before dripped with such languid sumptuousness, and the haunted house in ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, with its echoing wooden floors, floral wallpaper and white linens, may be the setting for a family’s nightmare, but it is also a designer’s dream.

Two sisters, Su-Mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-Yeon (Moon Geun-young), have been deeply traumatised by the circumstances of their mother’s death. After a long stay in an institution, they return to the country-house of their father (Kim Kab-su) and his new wife Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-a). The shy Su-yeon is terrified by footsteps that she hears approaching her bed at night, Su-mi is convinced that her younger sister is being beaten and tormented by their stepmother, while the pill-popping Eun-joo’s behaviour becomes more and more neurotic and aggressive. In this atmosphere of heated female hysteria, a fifth presence in the house is making itself felt, forcing the family’s dark secrets out of the closet.

For all the apparent simplicity of its premise, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ has more twists than a sixties dance floor, so that seemingly innocuous questions – who does the father keep calling on the telephone? why is Eun-Joo on medication? why does her menstrual cycle coincide with Su-yeon’s? – receive the most unexpected answers. At times this film is nail-bitingly terrifying, but for the most part it is marked by a brooding, slightly unhinged mood of melancholy through which, as in Hideo Nakata’s ‘Dark Water’, madness scurries like a ghost.

Lose yourself in the haunted delirium of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ before Hollywood puts it on prozac

It's Got: A creepily beautiful house, women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a wicked stepmother, one dark twist after another, and the most hysterical dinner sequence since Eraserhead.

It Needs: Ghostbusters, and a good psychiatrist.

DVD Extras Tartans two-disk edition is comprehensive, stimulating, and, despite the hyper-abundance of material, rarely repeats itself. Disk One: scene selection; choice of Dolby digital 2.0/Dolby digital 5.1/dts; optional English subtitles; audio commentary one (subtitled), in which writer/director Kim Jee-woon gives an excellent breakdown of the motivations behind the mise-en-scène and plot construction, and young actresses Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young discuss the sisterly bond that developed between them on-set and their remaining difficulty in watching some of the scenes; audio commentary two (subtitled), in which Jee-woon, along with director of photography Lee Mogae and lighting director Oh Seung-Chul, analyse the films complicated framing and lighting, emphasising that no aspect was left to chance ("we discussed a lot about this scene" being something of a mantra); original theatrical trailer; UK exclusive directors interview (28min, and conducted by Billy Chainsaw through an interpreter - subtitles would have been better for the final cut), in which Kim Jee-woon discusses the (far simpler) original Korean folk tale, his interest in all genres besides romantic comedy, and his refusal to be involved in the Hollywood remake. Disk Two: (all subtitled) The Story of a Tale of two Sisters (24min), nicely bundling behind-the-scenes material and interviews with director and cast; production design featurette (12min), interviewing production designer Jo Gyeun-hun on the films meticulous artistry; music score featurette (6min) interviewing composer Lee Byoung-woo; CGI documentary featurette (6min) interviewing Uk-kim and Song Jung-min from Digital Tetra Incorporated on the films unprecedentedly subtle incorporation of digital imaging; Creating the Poster featurette (6min), interviewing poster photographer O Hyoung-geun on his love of the awkwardness visible in formal portraits; eleven high quality deleted scenes with a subtitled directors commentary (occasionally, alas, masking the subtitled dialogue) that gives the reasons for his decision to delete them (they are redundant, inappropriate in tone, over-complicating, over-expository, or reveal too much too soon), and a reel of alternative outtakes; interviews, all conducted unconventionally by the director himself, with cast members Kim Kab-su (11min), Yeom Jeong-a (10min), Im Soo-jung (13min) and Moon Geun-young (13min), all of whom discuss the difficulty of the shoot; two informal interviews with the director (10min and 16min), conducted by director Im Pil-sung in a cloud of cigarette smoke, on horror, critics, and South Koreas film industry; A Psychiatrists Perspective (5min), po-faced interview with psychiatrist Kim Jung-il who, in keeping with his name, offers a Jungian analysis of the films "keen sense of psychological matters"; stills gallery. DVD Extras Rating: 10/10


Immaculately designed, brooding story of ghosts, madness, and a family with a few too many skeletons in its closet.