A Tale of Two Sisters – A Journey Into Oblivion (2003)

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Star Cast

Lim Soo-jeong as Bae Soo-mi (Elder Sister)
Jung-ah Yum as Eun-joo (Stepmom)
Kap-su Kim as Bae Moo-hyoen (Father)
Geun-Young Moon as Bae Soo-yeon (Younger Sister)

This review contains spoilers.

Known for their cinematography, artwork, and unique style of storytelling, the Koreans have their own quirky ways and nobody quite creates thrillers and horrors better than the Koreans right now. A Tale of Two Sisters is not remotely closed to Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities; it is, in fact, a dark psychological thriller sure to startle and puzzle viewers with its disquieting story sequencing and the mysterious use of symbols and motifs in furthering the plot.

As such, Director Kim Jee-Woon gives us a lesson in building a cryptic story, adequate spatial utilization, claustrophobic gothic interiors, stark lighting, and a calculatingly thrilling camerawork. Make no mistake though, the most brilliant adage of the movie is the story and the manner the story flows from the start until the end, with flashback sequences scattered across, especially during the final portions of the movie, uncloaking the mystery and leaving viewers amazed by the simple presentation of an immensely engrossing and powerfully executed psychological thriller.

The movie starts with a stunning oeuvre, the background it seems, smooth green wallpaper with various patterns of layers represents different imageries and creates a restrained mood from the go. The same wallpaper where the titles roll incidentally is the exclusive artwork of the gothic house that young Soo-mi, along with her sister Soo-yeon, calls her home after returning from a visit to a faraway territory.

Accompanied by their father Moo-hyoen, the two girls in their mid and early teens enter the house to the greetings of a woman, who seems rather odd, and we later discover her to be their half mother, the second wife of their father. The struggle of opposing forces ensues immediately after the two young girls start living there—with the irresistible force of the stepmother, Eun-joo, matching the immovable object that is Soo-mi. What commences thereon only mystifies the quintessence of the residents of the house, with the story moving deeper and deeper into mayhem and illusion.

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Popular as a horror movie, A Tale of Two Sisters couldn’t be farther from a horror movie. It does have supernatural elements, yet the main focus lies in the etheric dual between the stepmother and the elder daughter, their inherent conflict that goes on increasing until it reaches boiling point and explodes—revealing all the patterns, links, and the mythical questions that viewers hold to themselves until the climax of the movie. Much of the criticism A Tale of Two Sisters holds comes from its rather perplexing plot, sometimes baffling, at other times increasingly frustrating.

Careful observation of the movie does aid in decrypting the hidden messages of the movie. The manner in which the director intelligently ties all loose ends, with every scene, the mannerisms, and actions of the characters laying a path towards eventuality, gives a pleasing feeling at the end because the viewer keeps on guessing until the end and when it nears, it’s completely polarized and incredibly well timed, filmed, and delivered.

A metaphoric movie, A Tale of Two Sisters is a sublime psychological thriller—done neatly with a strong sense of storytelling, terrific sets design, structuring, lighting, and magnificent performances by all the performers. In terms of the pace, A Tale of Two Sisters is methodical and deliberate—building slowly towards the climax, with an emphatic rising action in the second act and a compelling exposition in the first. Various themes surround the movie, but the enthralling one is of the obvious, mental derangement.

In that sense, director Jee-Woon shows the movie, not from an omnipresent third person point-of-view, but from the perspective of Soo-mi—the one with a multiple personality disorder, or the dissociative identity disorder—thereby confusing the rattle out of the viewers, until after the end of the movie where everything seems to settle down. This balance between mystery and oblivion is one of the best aspects of the movie. The director walks this razor’s edge, and handles the story beautifully despite hiding most of the plot from the audiences, whilst ensuring that the action keeps them captivated enough to continue watching the classic.

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The director drops various hints as we move along, but they are rather bizarre and mystifying. When Soo-mi returns home, her stepmom greets her and exclaims that she looks well. Right at that moment, we get the feeling that something isn’t right in the house. Obviously, later on, all of it was just Soo-mi’s imagination as she had two personalities, one of herself, the stepdaughter, and the other of her stepmom. Her sister was already dead, she made up the entire escapade. Soo-mi, of course, acted the two crucial roles on and off and rivaled her own self, whilst imagining her deceased sister with her all along.

It ranges from brilliant in terms of story progression and sadistic, depressing as to how Soo-mi was regressing. The actions of Soo-mi invoke emotions vacillating from pity at her sheer condition, to lunacy when she performs all those actions against herself—acting out the part of her stepmom, and to disgust when she acts as her father’s wife and plays the role of the stepmom despite being his daughter.

The horror facet is very much alive in the movie, not actively but as a passive bystander. Whilst it’s true that Eun-joo had her own stake, her absence throughout the movie—and Soo-mi’s own insanity in full coverage—makes her somewhat of a sympathetic character but not until we really get to know her real self and her role in the demise of the family, which is subtle but powerful. The presentation of this unspoken rivalry and the terrorizing antagonism between Eun-joo and Soo-mi reaches the center stage without any hurry—slow and mechanized, until it becomes a norm over an event.

In the pre climax, after leaving Soo-mi at the mental asylum, Eun-joo returns home only to discover the presence of the haunting spirits—the younger daughter, perhaps even accompanied by her mother. The final sequence when she realizes them, the treatment there isn’t flashy, grisly, or horrific; there is a sense of inevitability, and an actualization of the earlier prophecies that disappeared into silence. This whole episode is foreshadowed in earlier scenes, and the restrained dialogs thrown in intervals do suggest something ominous going on all the time, but it isn’t clear, what, until the tail end of the movie. The dialog, the minimalist dialog style, is perhaps the best aspect of the movie propelling the movie into a mystery classic.

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Garlanded by stunning performances, a magical treatment of a brilliant story, and a pure exhibition of fine arts, along with a brooding style of photography, Kim Jee-Woon sets the tone of the movie right from the onset and remains loyal to it throughout the movie, inciting a clandestine mood in viewers during the 2 hours of non-stop misery. A Tale of Two Sisters is simply a journey. It’s not a ride, but a journey from here to here, and an exemplar movie in the genre of psychological thrillers. Perplexing, bizarre, and genius—a rare combination.

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