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'A Tale of Two Sisters'

2006/08/08 Source

One of the best East Asian horror films of our time

Kyu Hyun Kim (news)

"A Tale of Two Sisters", currently being remade into a Hollywood blockbuster, was one of the biggest Korean box office successes of the 2003 summer season.

It generated mixed reviews from Korean film critics on its initial release as well as a whirlpool of controversy among its viewers, mostly regarding its audacious twist ending, certainly one of the most extreme among its kinds since perhaps "Usual Suspects".

This twist ending was allegedly one of the reasons why the film, despite high expectations, did not do well in Southeast Asia, where local viewers apparently expected a more straightforward spook show.

During its all too brief theatrical release in North America by Tartan Films, "Two Sisters" was likewise met with a fair share of "huh?" responses from professional critics, although it now counts such notable horror-film gurus as Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog among its champions.

Three years after its initial release, we are in a better position to appreciate the film for what it is: not only one of the best contemporary East Asian horror films, but also one of the most beautiful Korean films ever made.

In terms of emotional power and tragic allure, "Two Sisters" leaves most of the so-called "J-horror" films in the dust.

A troubled teenager Su-mi (Lim Soo-jung) and her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) arrive at their doctor father's (Kim Kab-soo) country house. They are greeted by Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah), the proverbial "wicked witch" stepmother who seems to despise the sister's close relationship with one another.

However, things are not quite what they seem. Su-mi has a frightening vision of an older woman with pleading eyes and a broken neck. The father refuses to acknowledge the presence of Su-yeon. And why is he clandestinely videotaping Eun-joo in her sleep?

The surprise twist in "Two Sisters" which supposedly answers all, well, most, of these questions is very effective as a sucker punch to the viewers but falls apart upon close scrutiny.

If anything, director and screenwriter Kim Jee-woon was overly ambitious. He apparently could not resist adding multiple climaxes when one solid ending and a capping epilogue would have done the job perfectly. This is a tendency that also pops up in his other movies, see "Bittersweet Life".

More importantly, Kim seems unsure about whether his imagined universe allows for physical manifestation of dead spirits or not. Only a few classic horror films, such as "The Haunting", get away with the is-that-all-in-her-mind-or-is-it-real ambiguity without losing the audience on the way. Kim Jee-woon has a few more steps to go up before reaching that level, it appears.

But once the issue of plot mechanics is over and done with, the fact remains that "Two Sisters" works on so many different levels.

Production design, supervised by Jo Keun-hyeon, and cinematography are simply gorgeous. The country house, with its culturally hybrid architecture and gingerbread-laced-with-arsenic fairy-tale atmosphere, is veritably a character of its own. Lee Mo-gae's cinematography and Oh Seung-chul's lighting pull off a seemingly impossible task of making the crimson gloom and moss-green despair of the house distressingly attractive.

Lee Byeong-woo (who went on to score "Untold Scandal", "Red Shoes" and the 2006 monster hit "The Host", contributes one of the best film scores ever composed for a Korean film, centered on a melancholy lullaby.

Director Kim coaxes a full spectrum of effective performances out of the cast members, which, despite their high pitch, never slide into histrionics.

Lim Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young, who has since gone on to become Korea's most bankable female performer, starring in such ridiculous pieces of fluff like "Innocent Steps", are both good but Im deserves special praise, as the film's credibility really hangs on her ability to persuasively present Su-mi's anger, sorrow and vulnerability.

Yum Jung-ah, in a rather confusingly written role, nonetheless does wonders with the "Evil Stepmother" role the viewers love to hate, giving a hugely entertaining performance.

"Two Sisters" makes it clear from the outset that it is really the psychological turmoil inside Su-mi's mind that drives the tragic narrative. Its special quality in the end comes from director Kim's unswerving empathy for Su-mi's Weltanschauung.

No horror film would detail a young girl's affectionate response to her sister's accidental menstruation in the way "Two Sisters" does, only to make us aware of the psychological implication of the whole episode by the end, leaving us amazed, disturbed, intrigued and immeasurably sad all at the same time.

Gutsy yet exquisite, seductive yet horrific, and more than anything else emotionally honest, "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a brilliant gem that transcends its genre contrivances and gives us a powerful portrayal of an ultimately sympathetic teenage soul devastated by the selfishness and hypocrisy of the adult world.

DVD Presentation

Tartan Asia Extreme's Region 1 DVD is a two-disc special edition porting over most of the generous supplements from Woo Sung Cinema's Region 3 DVD. The anamorphic 1.85: 1 transfers in both versions present an interesting case of comparison.

The Woo Sung transfer is rather well done, presumably under the director's supervision, with little contrast problems (known to plague even high-profile DVD releases from Korea) and bringing out rich depths in shadow and natural skin tones.

The Tartan transfer is noticeably darker, featuring a slightly softened look. On the positive side, edge enhancement, debris and other video noises have been aggressively cleaned up. The most notable difference, however, lies in color scheme. The Woo Sung transfer tends toward green and mauve, whereas the Tartan transfer is permeated by magenta and blue. The stepmother's silk blouse has a greenish tinge in the former, whereas the wallpaper sports relatively subdued colors in the latter.

It is really a matter of personal taste but I have to say I prefer the Woo Sung transfer: the Tartan version looks rather garish and aggressively "horror-film-like".

Aside from DTS tracks which I did not sample, the Dolby Digital 5.1 channel tracks from both versions are both serviceable, although again I prefer the Woo Sung version. (Thank goodness the Tartan track does not default to DTS, the way it does very annoyingly in a few of their discs.) It sounds more fully rounded with Lee Byeong-woo's lovely score coming out very clearly. The Tartan track seems to claim a slight edge in terms of ambience, especially during the "dead bird" sequence.

English subtitles are nearly completely identical in the two versions. As usual, the Tartan version uses a more legible font, has correct punctuations and is better timed. A slight coarseness of English dialogue could have been modified, but I am splitting hairs I suppose.

The supplementary materials are carried over wholesale from the Korean release. Kim Jee-woon and two young actresses provide a polite and informative commentary track. Im and Moon are overly demure and respectful, but the track is full of interesting discussions about coordinating the pitch and tone of acting according to the nature of the scenes.

The second disc contains the bulk of the materials. (You can ignore the anaemic "A Letter from Su-yeon & Su-mi" features and various trailers, all of which try to sell the movie as a straight-laced horror flick).

No less than six featurettes on various aspects of production and post-production are included. The most interesting among them is a discussion by photographer Oh Hyeong-geun of his highly controversial poster design, showing two bloodied girls (even dripping blood from between their legs!) in a mock family portrait.

Actor interviews are followed by a Q & A session with Director Kim and another director Yim Pil-sung ("Antarctic Journal"), in which Kim tries a bit too hard to defend his film against criticisms.

A featurette titled "Psychiarist's Perspective" is not the carnival sideshow you suspect it might be but an impressively rational interpretation of the characters by a professional psychiatrist.

The special features are rounded out by deleted scenes (including a more nakedly Freudian dream sequence that implies an incestuous desire on the part of Su-mi toward her father) and a photo gallery.

The Tartan Asia Extreme release of "Two Sisters" is a lavish production by the Region 1 standard but does not quite match the qualities displayed in their DVDs of "R-Point" and "Old Boy". Still, until the tenth anniversary edition comes out in HD around 2013, this Region 1 release will do nicely for North American viewers.

©2006 OhmyNews

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