A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Nikki Tranter

Reds, blues, and purples slide along director Ji-woon Kim's canvas and it's impossible to look away, even when it's scary.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Director: Ji-woon Kim
Cast: Su-jeong Lim, Geon-yeung Mun, Jung-ah Yum, Kap-su Kim
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Masulpiri Films
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2005-03-29
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Arguably the most talked about Asian horror film since Ringu in 1998, the creepy A Tale of Two Sisters shocks and perplexes. Based on the Korean folktale, "Rose Flower, Red Lotus," it features an almost incomprehensible plot. Watching it feels like standing in a dark corner, staring at a painting that moves. Reds, blues, and purples slide along director Ji-woon Kim's canvas and it's impossible to look away, even when it's scary.

On the new Tartan DVD, the director asserts that he "put too much effort into the art direction and the visuals." This suits his film's gloomy saga about Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and her little sister Su-yeon (Geon-yeung Mun), returning to their father's country home following their mother's death and a brief stay in an institution. Here they battle an evil stepmother (Jung-ah Yum) bent on ruining their lives. Su-mi, especially, feels out of place in her home.

The place has an unrelenting creepiness giving the impression that "something bad" happened here, but it's not until a truly terrible dinner with relatives to welcome she and her sister home that we learn not only does Su-mi have demons to conquer, so does everyone around her. Eventually, Su-mi's coming to terms with losing her mother, as well as positioning herself as parent of sorts to Su-yeon (she'll simply have nothing to do with stepmom) become too much for her, and as secrets from all sides are revealed she slowly loses control. Nowhere in the house is safe for Su-mi, with long hallways, shadowed corners, and lotus-patterned walls all threatening.

Tartan's two-disc set is packed with detailed discussions of all such elements. Kim talks about color choices, camera placement, and his use of "the conventions and rules of the horror genre to present a pure horror movie." In "An Explanation by the Director," he asserts, "Doing the DVD bonus material is like doing a second post-production." He produced a swag of mini-documentaries, including featurettes about the production design, score, poster, and CGI. Along with "An Explanation," the DVD includes "The Director's Thoughts on Horror," two commentaries, a behind the scenes reel, and half an hour of deleted scenes with commentary. Kim explains the surfeit: "I'm doing this to get closer to my viewers."

It's a good thing too, as this is one of those films near impossible to figure out on first viewing. It's actually more interesting to watch the film a second time, to note just where and when Kim employs certain lighting, sound and framing techniques to successfully keep the audience in the dark until major twists are revealed. The film is a mind trap, and deliberately so. It's meant to shock. Creating a cohesive narrative, for Kim, isn't as important as making sure the thrills work. "I'm surprised my films are successful, with so many non-commercial elements," he tells fellow director Il Pil-Sung in "An Explanation by the Director." But, he says, "The quality of horror films depends on the intensity of the scariness." Kim compares his style to Hitchcock's, but it's more in line with Dario Argento, who has claimed repeatedly that story is the last thing he thinks about when creating genuine horror thrills.

Appropriately, the DVD extras don't focus much on story. In "Creating the poster," photographer Hyoung-Geun O discusses his favor for capturing the "uneasiness" most people feel in "photos taken by a person you don't know" and how he incorporated this into the ghoulish family portrait decorating the poster, and now the DVD cover. In another curious extra, psychologist Jung-Il Kim uses Jungian psychology to support the validity of the plot, as stress, guilt, and anxiety can play tricks with the mind.

The "Cast Interviews" featurette is more so. Kim conducts 10-minute interviews with each of his four principal actors, talking with them about the film, their favorite scenes, and the impact the film has had on their careers. At the end of each interview, he turns the tables, asking his actors to tell him exactly what they thought of him as a director. It's a brilliant feature, and sometimes seems voyeuristic. When Kim asks Lim to describe her strengths and weaknesses as an actress, she says,

I should be able to accept any kind of situation. But I was closed off to new opportunities. Other performers' acting, the space, the weather, your comments -- I wasn't prepared to accept them. I still have this tendency; it's better than before. I'm trying to fix [it]. Sometimes I close myself off involuntarily. Then I open up again with difficulty.

The interview turns swiftly from a discussion of acting techniques to an exploration of the actor's self-esteem issues. "People told me you cried every day when you went to bed," Kim says. "It's really embarrassing to tell you this," she says. "I felt many times when we were shooting that I wanted to leave the set. My body was in front of the camera, but my soul seemed to be somewhere else." She credits the film with bringing her out of her shell: "I met so many good people, I locked myself out from the world before, but because of these great people, I would open up."

The openness with which the actors discuss their frailties starts to seem like therapy. When she begins to cry at the memory of a crewmember's kindness, young Mun's gorgeous innocence is almost overwhelming. She sits forward in her seat, covering her eyes, as great big tears fall onto the table. Such intimacy is disconcerting but also part of the daily process for this crew.

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