How (not) to survive the holidays with family: A critical review of “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)

Not to toot my own horn, but you, tonstant weader, who so well know the nature of my soul, probably recognize that I’ve seen a couple of thrillers in my time. So when a film that I have seen more than once gets me to beg the characters on screen not to look under that cabinet – that nothing good can come from doing so – it is entirely possible one might have an effectively scary movie on their hands.

I said I was going to try and end the year on a high note.

Enter “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a psychological horror/haunted house movie that is one of the best of them. It has something for every fan of the genre. You like slow burning and atmospheric? We got you covered. You like jump scares and loud noises? We got you covered too. You like movies that appear to have made the mainstream without ever having actually made it? Keep reading.

The film opens with – go figure – two sisters, long-haired Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and short-haired Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), who have returned to their family’s summer house for some rest and relaxation, neatly fitting into this blog’s “home for the holidays” theme. However, between the distance of their father (a solid performance from Kim Kap-soo) and some passive aggression from their stepmother (a layered performance from Yum Jung-ah), they’ll have a hard time settling in. Not to mention the fact that the house seems haunted by some frightful and disturbing past. The more Su-mi plays detective and defense for her sister, the more it seems that little is as it seems.

That’s admittedly vague regarding the story (the script was by the director Kim Jee-woon), but the film is honestly something that must be reckoned with in its viewing. Much of the experience is in the atmosphere. Right off the bat, viewers are greeted with the dulled images of a TV movie, but take heart. From the first scene set in a sterile hospital, the muted colors only emphasize that nothing in this film is ever going to be friendly.

Everything is carried by mood and subtext. Character interaction and body language, rather than monologues and exposition dumps, guide the narrative. This is a deep and subtle film, and that’s apparent in the visuals. The shot composition, blocking and set decoration are where one should be paying attention (the cinematography was by frequent Kim collaborator Lee Mo-gae). A clock, a television set, a pair of mirrors, a faucet, everything is photographed with frightening intention and meaning. The editing and pacing are intelligent, purposeful and reward careful observation.

A good test of a psychological thriller is whether or not you can comprehend–even feel sorry for–every main character, and this film passes with flying colors. The sisters have their own thing going, with Su-mi wanting answers and Su-yeon wanting to be left alone, and it would be easy enough to stop there. However, Kim’s script bothers with dad and stepmom as well, who are desperate to understand and desperate to fit in respectively, and both believably so. That’s also thanks to the solid, sometimes painfully so, performances of everyone in the cast.

The film is thoughtful, but that’s not to say it lacks thrills. For example, there is a scene in which a character raids a refrigerator for a late night snack. You would think it’s the kind of scene where they’ll close the refrigerator door, and a jump scare will be suddenly standing next to them. It isn’t, but you might wish it would have been that easy when the scene actually unfolds.

Some quibbles: The use of sound is not particularly creative, although it is appropriate and effective. The score is serviceable, if not memorable. The lighting is never the best. It’s usually passable, but sometimes it seems obviously shot day for night. Of course, that arguably enhances the overall uneasy feeling the film creates.

“Sisters” is as moody and Gothic as get out. Old houses, family secrets, hints of incest and necromancy, the gang’s all here. Stepmom keeps saying the house is a character, but she’s wrong. It’s the family dynamic – not the house – that is the real “hidden” character of the work. The family is twisted and self-swallowing, like an ouroboros, and its true nexus is not revealed until the end of the film, or maybe not until a second (or third) viewing.

This is not a thriller to watch if you want to see sexy, brainless teens being slaughtered in creative ways. This is a thriller to watch if you want to see atmosphere on a sensible budget, a complex and nuanced story about flawed people, and a restrained mind screw in artful fashion.

“What in hell’s name made us get to this point?” a character asks toward the end of the film. “Don’t you get it yet?” I’ve seen it twice, and the answer is still: I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. Happy New Year.

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