Precise direction that goes more for slow chills than quick frights, and a script with some startling twists, makes “A Tale of Two Sisters” a classy entry in the East Asian psycho-horror stakes. Though pic is at heart an old-fashioned scarefest largely set in a remote country house, it manages to suspend disbelief without over-taxing the viewer’s patience, and boasts at least once terrific performance, by actress Yeom Jeong-ah as a scary stepmom. DreamWorks recently pounced on stateside remake rights, though pic also looks to have some Western theatrical potential as well as a robust ancillary future.
Film opened powerfully in South Korea June 13, dislodging “The Matrix Reloaded” from its top spot. In its first three weeks, it’s racked up more than 2 million admissions (around $14.5 million), with a final tally of 3 million-plus admissions likely.
Third feature by writer-director Kim Jee-woon is very different in tone from his previous movies, the black horror-comedy “The Quiet Family” and charming romantic fantasia “The Foul King.” Its clean, controlled approach to generic material is, in fact, closer to his seg (“Coming Out”) in recent Asian horror omnibus “Three.” Though pic has some similarities to the style of Japanese psycho-thrillers, a simpler, Western parallel would be with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” There’s the same avoidance of shadowy lighting effects, with the horror emerging as much from characterization and the slightly stylized design and color.
In a pristine sanatorium, a doctor interviews a silent young woman about her memories of “that day.” Dissolve to a car journeying through summertime landscape and three people getting out when they reach a wooden house in an idyllic, lakeside setting: father Mu-hyeon (Kim Gab-su) and daughters Su-mi (Im Su-jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-yeong).
Waiting inside with a greeting as warm as a prison warden’s is young stepmom Eun-ju (Yeom), to whom Su-mi is openly hostile. From their frosty exchanges with Eun-ju, it appears the sisters have spent a while away from home undergoing treatment for some unspecified illness. The younger one, Su-yeon, is still apprehensive and fragile.
First half-hour is a tour-de-force of pure psychological atmosphere, with the house, full of subdued colors and with a low-key gothic flavor, almost a fifth character. The father seems emotionally bruised and detached while the sisters are a tightly-knit pair, with Su-mi comforting Su-yeon when the latter thinks she hears things in bed that night.
Subsequent variety of chills, red herrings and mysterious references between the characters, which aren’t explained to the viewer, begins to wear thin until the introduction of two other characters, which leads to a genuinely creepy sequence of haunting.
When Eun-ju finally snaps at the girls’ constant hostility, and locks a screaming Su-yeon in a creepy closet in Su-yeon’s room, script suddenly shifts the goalposts with a clever twist. While maintaining its controlled style, pic adds more overt horror prior to its second twist (realized in a neat circular tracking shot) and final, explanatory reel.
Though Im, as the elder daughter, grows in her role, it’s Yeom, as the acid, nervy stepmom, who takes an early lead and sustains it throughout the pic as her character broadens in unexpected ways. Following her icy perf as a cop in the recent serial-killer mystery “H” (2002), and her smaller but crucial role in the chilling “Tell Me Something” (1999), Yeom completes a hat trick of memorable roles in creepy movies. Mun is fine as the largely silent younger sister, though Kim is low-key in the underwritten role of the father.
Film is basically a director’s piece, highly manipulative and dedicated (effectively) to keeping auds on tenterhooks. Lensing by Lee Mo-gae and production design by Jo Geun-hyeon are both tops, serving the single vision. Lee Byeong-woo’s music largely underlines the lyrical moments, with the fine effects track left to bolster the scares. Korean title is two female names (literally “Rose Flower, Red Lotus”), referring to a classical Korean folktale that’s already been filmed five times between 1924 and 1972.