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.
Kim Jee-woon takes advantage of the longer running time of A Tale of Two Sisters to build up the atmosphere, although perhaps the film would have benefited from a little trimming to get things moving earlier on.
Kim's knowledge of the horror genre is made apparent not only by the parallels between A Tale of Two Sisters and Western fare such as The Others and The Sixth Sense, but also in some clear visual references to Audition and Ringu, perhaps as an acknowledgment of the competition. In fact, despite these similarities, A Tale of Two Sisters is no thoughtless copycat, and is instead perhaps the first South Korean horror film to rival its more famous Japanese cousins.
Certainly Hollywood seems to think so, as DreamWorks have bought the remake rights and plan to release their version sometime in 2004. It is hard to imagine a major US studio releasing a film with such a fragmented narrative, so anybody who is baffled by the Korean original and prefers a more cut-and-dried approach to storytelling may favour the no doubt simplified American version instead. Anybody who does enjoy A Tale of Two Sister's fractured jigsaw-puzzle storyline is advised to investigate the similarly haunting and elusive Memento Mori, another notable Korean horror.
The initial, and so far only Korean release of the film is a two-disc limited edition that comes as a foldout digi-pack, including a slice of film held in a numbered presentation card with a comment from the director.
The rich tones of the production design are represented well by the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, but the picture has been a little over contrasted, resulting in strong blacks but a lack of shadow detail and occasional white clipping. The print itself is in good condition with nary a fleck or scratch to be seen.
The Korean DTS 6.1 ES soundtrack is very impressive, utilising a wide dynamic range and taking full advantage of the entire sound stage. The alternative Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix, although good, somehow lacks the in-the-room realism of the DTS track
The English subtitles on Korean releases are of an increasingly high standard, and A Tale of Two Sisters is no exception. However, at one point an on-screen letter remains un-translated. An English translation is available here.
The animated menus draw inspiration from the film's production design, using patterns and textures used in the family's home. The options are mainly in English with the occasional name or heading in Korean.
The set is packed with extras spread across two discs, although, as usual, none have English subtitles.
The first disc contains two audio commentaries, the first with the director, lighting director and cinematographer, the second with the director again but this time accompanied by Im Su-jeong and Moon Geun-young, the two on-screen sisters.
Also on the first disc is a two-minute theatrical trailer, which appears to have been edited and scored to resemble Ringu as closely as possible.
The second disc in the set divides its content into three main sections, In the Frame, Out the Frame, and To the Viewer.
In the Frame begins with a twenty-four minute making-of documentary consisting of clips from the film, interviews, storyboards, and on-set footage.
Next come four separate interviews with the four main cast members. These range in length from eleven to thirteen minutes.
No less than fifteen deleted scenes are included, ranging from a mere sixteen seconds to four-and-a-half minutes in length. All of the scenes include a forced commentary from the director. Many of the scenes provide clues to the film's narrative mystery, removed by the director because he felt they were too obvious.
The In the Frame section is rounded off with a three-and-a-half minute music video. This consists of a series of double takes showing the real and unreal versions of various scenes from the film.
Out the Frame contains four featurettes covering the production design, the score, CG effects and the poster campaign.
To The Viewer begins with a lengthy twenty-six minute interview with the director, filmed in two parts.
See The Movie With Psychiatrist is a five-minute feature in which, as the title implies, a psychiatrist gives their interpretation of the film.
To the Viewer concludes with an animated montage of production stills.
Aside from the listed options, there are also three Easter eggs. The first, billed as a Letter from Su-yeon, is a nine-minute audio message from Su-yeon accompanied by a montage of on-set footage, stills and film clips. Unsurprisingly, this is twinned with a similar four-minute Letter from Su-mi. The third Easter egg is a list of DVD credits.
Although not as in-depth and expansive as some Korean releases, the bonus materials supplied with A Tale of Two Sisters both explore the filmmaking process and offer further insight into the film itself, or at least they would if only English subtitles had been provided.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a film that features an uneasy atmosphere, some chilling moments, and a subtle eroticism in its telling of a surprisingly sad and touching story. Some will no doubt dislike the film for its obtuse narrative, but A Tale of Two Sisters is perhaps South Korea's first serious attempt to compete with, rather than imitate, the likes of Ringu, Audition and The Eye.
The Korean DVD release from Metro has a good anamorphic transfer and an excellent DTS ES surround mix. A cheaper Hong Kong release is now available that apparently features comparable audio and video quality.