Monday, February 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea, 2003)

(Trailer.) Two adolescent sisters, Su-mi (Im Soo-jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-Yeong), return to the large, immaculately decorated family home after an unspecified length of time in a sanatorium and promptly lock horns with their new and hated step-mother Eun-Ju (Jung-ah Yum). The milquetoast father (Kap-su Kim) is usually either a shadow in the background or unaccountably absent or silent as the war between the sisters and stepmother steadily graduates from simple hostility to psychological terror and physical harm, even as ghostly apparitions start making their appearance. (As Eun-Ju says to her husband at one point, "There's something strange in this house.") Has there been – or will there soon be – a murder?
The film is the most internationally successful film to date of Korean director Ji-woon Kim, the man behind 1998's black comedy The Quiet Family / Choyonghan kajok (trailer) –
which was remade to greater popularity by Takashi Miike two years later as the extremely weird flick The Happiness of the Katakuris / Katakuri-ke no kôfuku (trailer) – and a participating director in the excellent and oft-shocking tri-segment anthology film Three Extremes II / Saam gaang (2001). The fourth version of a Korean folk tale, A Tale of Two Sisters is, to date, the highest grossing Korean "horror" film; currently the Hollywood re-envisionment, entitled The Uninvited (trailer), is set for general release in 2009. And while it is doubtful that the mainstream US version will in any way come close to the general visual, aural and atmospheric artistic level of Kim's film, it shouldn't have much difficultly in making more sense dramaturgically.
A Tale of Two Sisters is one of those films like the recent critical and box office success El Orfanato / The Orphanage (2007/trailer) which, while undeniably well made and interesting, nonetheless suffers some obvious dramatic inconsistencies that all those lavishing the praise either simply ignore or for some strange reason simply fail to notice. Not to say that A Tale of Two Sisters lacks aspects that are to be praised, for the contrary is true. The music to the film is both beautiful and haunting, alternately underscoring and playing against the given mood of a scene. Likewise, the oft-igneous framing and camera work may at times verge on the baroque, but it helps lend the movie a continual visual beauty that is at time disquieting and, at times, a pleasure to the eye in which the occasional bursts of true horror become twice as effective. Last but not least, the acting is excellent, with every character conveying the perfect note no matter how fleeting – or how long – their given screen time might be.
No, the problem with A Tale of Two Sisters is simply the story itself, which seems in general to be viewed as a masterpiece of ingeniously twisting narrative but is, in the end, much more an unsatisfying excess of over-intricate plotting sprinkled with a variety of horror conventions that leads up to a "shocking" but unsatisfying twist ending – with a final scene that seems more tacked on than necessary. (Once again, evil is punished.) It's just, due to the story's big twist shortly before, the supernatural angle is more or less disposed of, so when it suddenly rears its head again in the last five minutes, it seems much more like a dues ex machine than a satisfying conclusion. Likewise, the opening scene that sets up the entire film as a flashback is truly extraneous and unneeded, and serves little but to make the (first) twist ending easier to foresee and, in turn, cast an overall doubt on everything that occurs in the movie as a whole – indeed, could the last scene also only be a figment of the imagination of the one sister? But then, seeing how much the director plays with reality and interpretation, perhaps that was his goal – another one of the clues indicating the twist that viewers should catch, like the verb conjunction form the father uses when he tells his daughter(s) to get out of the car in the first scene of the flashback. (That “clue,” however, might only exist in the German-language version.)
In any event, once again to give credit where credit is due, as flawed as the narrative is, in every other aspect of the film, director Ji-woon Kim's presentation is done with such an assured hand that the almost two hour long running time of A Tale of Two Sisters never becomes boring despite an extremely languid pace and, although unsatisfying as a whole, the film is also anything but wasted celluloid.

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