Post Millennial Trauma: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
I’ve had to bump this film up the reviewing schedule due to being too lazy to review things at home (and yesterday too drunk) and because my next few reviews are boob filled extravaganzas I can’t get the pictures for them at work. I also can’t think of a suitable boob cover for one of them either. Honestly, it’s ridiculous- if I put the title in to Google it just spits out millions of images of naked chicks, and as such is making me wonder if I didn’t accidentally watch a porn. I’m pretty certain I didn’t as there were a good few killings, but still, there was lesbianage, boob, minky, more boob, unconvincing shagging and more than one porn moustache.
Before I ramble off to badly on a boob filled digression instead here’s the banner carrying horror film from 2003, and there’s nary a jugg to be seen…
Phew, that was a close one. Anyhoo, 2003 was actually quite a good year for Horror (or I seem to remember it as being, although I wouldn’t put it past me to be talking utter crap). Nevertheless, it was also in many ways a transition year. The J-Horror fetish that plagued the late 90’s and early part of the last decade was nearly played out, and the odious tripe that is Torture Porn hadn’t yet taken a massive dump on the genre. In the midst of this, Ji-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters slunk onto the scene and served as a superb last hurrah for a style and formula that had become overplayed and stale.
This is an inordinately complex film. Ostensibly a ghost story, A Tale of Two Sisters is actually about one woman’s descent into madness, and the nuances and subtleties of the film aren’t actually clear on first watch. Actually, when I first saw it I didn’t have a clue what the hell had happened in the end, and it was only on this rewatch that the penny dropped for me. Mrs Jarv, on the other hand, spent the entire film alternately hiding her face or asking me inane questions, which I couldn’t answer without spoiling the ending. Even so, when I came to pen this review, I did check Wikipedia and looking at their plot description I’m at a complete loss as to what the hell they’re talking about. I must have missed something…
A Tale of Two Sisters is, as I’ve said, a ghost film. Sort of. Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim) is collected from hospital by her father, Moo-hyeon (a really good understated performance from Kap-su Kim), and taken home to live with him and evil stepmother Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum). It quickly becomes apparent that something is deeply wrong and Soo-mi is plagued with visions of her sister, Soo-yeon (Geun-Young Moon). The film builds to a tension, before a pretty cheaty twist ending (that you can see coming from a mile away) and a simultaneously completely confusing and totally necessary last scene.
I always find with ghost stories that they live and die by the atmosphere that the makers manage to conjure up. This may partially explain why films such as An American Haunting are so abject, and the genre also seems plagued by idiotic twists ever since Haley Joel Osmont saw dead people. Indeed, if there’s one thing that A Tale of Two Sisters has in absolute abundance it’s atmosphere. This is a film that oozes dread, there is absolutely no doubt on first watch that something deeply wrong is happening here. In fact, for much of the film I found it incredibly difficult to put my finger precisely on what was wrong, it all just feels so odd. I was expecting the twist (and I did call it, but so should everyone), but that doesn’t negate the fact that this is a creepy and tense film. There’s little in the way of outright jump scare moments, maybe the excruciating dinner party scene, instead the film simply keeps turning the screw by tiny degrees building a palpable sense of unease in the audience.
This is helped by the acting, which is uniformly excellent, although arguably the stand out performance is from Jung-ah Yum as the increasingly frantic stepmother, but I believe that the real star of this film is the cinematography and direction. Kim allows events to unfold at a languid pace, he’s in no rush to tell his story, and as such the little moments become far more creepy than they should be otherwise. It’s another Oriental slow-burner (why can’t Western directors allow horror movies to develop like this, and be, you know, actually horrifying?) and although I’d have dismissed the pace of it as too slow when I was 13, as an adult I really appreciate this style; not everything has to obnoxiously get in the audience’s face like a sugared-up ADD kid jumping around screaming for attention.
Secondly, the cinematography in this film is simply superb. The colour palette is all muted browns and dull sepia tones that give the house a feeling of decay. It does help that the house is naturally creepy, but you can almost smell how rotten the place is. This is a film that looks simply superb, and each scene is carefully and deliberately lit to accentuate the feeling that what we are witnessing here is a family that’s cracked under the strain of tragedy still existing in a building that mirrors their condition.
Overall, this is a really, really good film, and probably the last of the actually watchable J-horrors. The idiotic American remake, The Uninvited, on the other hand is (I’m reliably informed) rubbish. I’d recommend this as a legitimately creepy little film, and it is one that is more than worth a watch. It was mentioned in conversation the other day that there hasn’t been a really good horror from the Far East since this, and while my first thought was “nonsense”, in retrospect it now seems to me to be completely true, and if it is true, then perhaps it is because we are comparing them to films such as A Tale of Two Sisters and they can’t live up to it.
As this is clearly a film I recommend I’m giving it a high rating. I’m torn between going for 3 out of 4 or 3 and a half, but I think I’m going to go for 3. The reason being, that although this is a cracking film that looks great and is genuinely creepy, it is a touch unfathomable and does require multiple viewings to catch the nuances and explain the final act- I’ve seen it twice now, over a period of years, and now think I have a handle on it, but a lost of the subtleties did pass me by on first watch. So, in summary, a really good film and it can have 3 out of 4 evil twin popes.
Well, that’s 2003 done (there are other contenders as well that I’ll hit when I return to this series) so next up is 2004, which was a terrible year. I’m not sure what to do, so any suggestions are welcome else I’ll be forced to do Dumplings and I don’t want to because it makes me feel ill.
Until next time,