A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
The Film Based loosely on an old Korean folk tale that has been filmed no less than five times previously, Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters twists the source material more or less beyond recognition, keeping the father, stepmother and two daughters from the original but abandoning much of the rest. Rather than a literal adaptation, Kim's version is a successful attempt to update the story to a contemporary setting retaining the scary, sad and touching elements of the original.
The film begins with sisters Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) returning to their family home after an unspecified illness. There is an unusually close bond between the siblings, and Su-mi is highly protective of her younger sister Su-yeon. It is soon revealed that this is due in part to the apparent abuse that Su-yeon suffers at the hands of their classically wicked stepmother (Yeom Jeong-ah). However, a revelation that comes further into the film makes it clear that not all is as it first appeared, and much of what had been presented as reality was in fact a single individual's distorted viewpoint. Further revelations twist the tale even further, turning the film into a narrative jigsaw puzzle that is ultimately left for the viewer to solve.
Rather than being an obstacle to enjoyment, the uncertainty about what is actually happening and what is real or imagined adds to the sense of unease, with tension mounted higher by some highly effective shock moments. Contributing to the atmosphere of the film is the distinctive production design. The house that provides the setting for most of the film is decorated with dense, William Morris style floral patterns and textures. Instead of warm and welcoming, the designs seem somehow dark and oppressive, as if malignant forces are hiding somewhere in the intricate patterns.
Given the ambiguity of the roles in the film, the cast perform admirably. Im Soo-jung, despite her age, seems more than capable of carrying the film on her young shoulders and conveys the necessary fear, anger and confusion at appropriate moments without ever resorting to theatricality. Moon Geun-young as the younger sister is appropriately sweet and frail, in stark contrast to Yeom Jeong-ah's suitably two-faced and malicious stepmother. Kim Gap-soo as the father has less to do, but nevertheless appears duly haunted and out of his depth. Previously known for his debut black comedy The Quiet Family and the successful wrestling comedy The Foul King, confessed horror buff Kim Jee-woon decided to give up the laughs completely when he contributed the segment Memories to the pan-Asian horror anthology Three. In retrospect, Memories now appears to be a practice run for ideas explored further in A Tale of Two Sisters.