I went into A Tale of Two Sisters with some trepidation, as I’d been warned that it was a dark and deeply tragic fairy tale that would haunt me. That’s certainly true, but I admit I didn’t expect it to be quite so moving as it was, or to feature gorgeous, lush photography that draws out the psychological intensity of its subject.
A Tale of Two Sisters opens with teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) being questioned in a mental institution about “what happened that day” when she went mad – questions she declines to answer. Not long after, she and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) return home with their father Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo) and their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah). Su-mi is apparently cured, but soon her psychosis begins to manifest once again. She has a violent hatred for her stepmother, whom she accuses of abusing Su-yeon, and a deep resentment for her father. The only person she has any real connection to is Su-yeon, a quiet, introverted girl in contrast to her sister’s more out-going personality. What’s more, the house they live in appears to be haunted by the ghost of the deceased mother. The family conflicts intensify to a terrifying and, yes, tragic climax as the guilt of the past seeps into the present.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, with the dark secrets of the past manifesting themselves in acts of horrific violence and vague supernatural events. The cause of Su-mi’s madness haunts the family, but none of them speak of it, alluding to it only in whispers. The film creates tension out of those silences, the things that are not said, the fears that are never voiced. As with many ghost stories, the house itself becomes a receptacle for all the anger and resentment that the characters feel, the supernatural manifesting itself not as palpable, physical ghosts, but as fleeting shadows, flashes of memory, and dreams. The question swirls as to whether the ghosts are real or something projected from the tortured psyches of the individuals in the house.
The fairy tale elements are easily marked – Su-mi and Su-yeon as the put-upon children reveling in the memory of their mother, Eun-joo acting out the role of the nearly crazed, oppressive stepmother, and Moo-hyeon as the distant father. Because this is a fairy tale, I could see some of the twists coming, but that did nothing to lessen the impact of the tragedy itself. The snatches of memory, told from Su-mi’s perspective, begin to make sense as the natural and supernatural elements coalesce, hinting at and then finally revealing the source of her original madness. There’s a Grande Guignol element to the color palette here that contributes to the sense of the film existing in its own fairy tale world, with lush reds contrasting against stark blues and whites and gentler brown tones, all of them associated with different characters.
A Tale of Two Sisters has the distinction of being one of the highest grossing Korean horror films ever, and there’s no wonder: it not only produces a spectacle of intense horror, but underscores that horror with real, moving tragedy. It is not just violence, but the memory of violence, not just death, but the memory of death, that winds itself about the film’s psychological core.
A Tale of Two Sisters is available to stream on Shudder.