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A Tale of Two Sisters   A-

Tartan Films

Year Released: 2003 (USA: 2004)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writer: Kim Jee-Woon
Cast: Yeom Jeong-A, Im Soo-Jung, Moon Geun-Young, Kim Kab-Su.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

In his horror treatise Danse Macabre, Stephen King sums up the problem that comes with revealing the monster lurking behind the door in a horror movie: what's behind the door is never as frightening as the door itself. As the door slowly creaks open, the buildup is always scarier than the payoff because what we envision behind the door is inevitably more terrifying than what is actually behind it. With the gut-wrenching Korean chiller A Tale of Two Sisters, that sentiment holds true in a superficial sense, but that's okay -- because what's behind the door is more deeply haunting than anything we'd imagined.

Upon returning home from an unexplained stay at a mental hospital, Su-Mi (Im Soo-Jung) and her younger sister Su-Yeon (Moon Geun-Young) cling to each other while dealing with their cruel stepmother (a wickedly good Yeom Jeong-A) and whatever horrible things might be hiding in the dark, shadowy hallways or in Su-Yeon's closet. Their reserved, ineffectual father (Kim Kab-Su) isn't much help, so Su-Mi becomes the fierce guardian of her younger sister, protecting her against their stepmother and whatever other horrors inhabit the house. With its floral-wallpapered interior drenched in earth tones and deep reds, the sprawling, mysterious house creates a suffocating atmosphere of dread and unease. Su-Mi has nightmares of a ghostly girl crawling around on the floor, Su-Yeon hears someone creeping into her room at night, and on the ride home after a shocking dinner at the house, a guest softly remarks, "There was a girl under the sink."

Inspired by a Korean folk tale that's been filmed several times before, A Tale of Two Sisters begins as a fairly straightforward mix of haunted-house chills and domestic drama. It's heart-stoppingly scary -- the ever-building sense of dread punctuated by several expertly orchestrated jump scares. But is the house really haunted, or is it the girls' imaginations? And why were they in the hospital? While the domestic drama is a bit shaky (at least the first time around, before we know the whole story), our sympathies are always firmly with the two sisters. But then writer-director Kim Jee-Woon pulls the rug out from under us, leaving us dazed as we try to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. When the door finally opens and we see what's lurking behind it, A Tale of Two Sisters reveals itself as more than a simple horror tale: it's a beautifully crafted and quietly heartbreaking meditation on adolescent turmoil, sisterly devotion, and painful, haunting regret.

Review published 12.17.2004.

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