Fright Fest 2018 Review #4 – A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

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Subgenre:  Ghost / Foreign

Summary:  Sent home to live with their father and stepmother, two sisters begin to experience supernatural phenomena.

Review:  Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), a troubled teenager, is released from a stay in a psych ward to return home to her father (Kim Kap-soo), younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Guen-young), and stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah).  Su-mi, a natural rebel, is instantly spiteful toward Eun-joo, herself a mean-spirited authoritarian.  The girls’ father pathetically attempts to keep the peace, while shy, nervous Su-yeon barely speaks.  This tense family dynamic is strained even further when the two sisters and their stepmother start to have run-ins with a malevolent presence in the house.

From its opening minutes, A Tale of Two Sisters establishes its mastery of craft, with sumptuous shots of the South Korean countryside and a sweeping, classically beautiful score.  These pleasures are short-lived, however, as the vast majority of the movie takes place in the confines of the family’s lavish but gloomy estate.  The gothic, oppressive atmosphere doesn’t let up until the movie’s end, creating a palpable sense of claustrophobia within the family’s sizable home.

But A Tale of Two Sisters is more than just a pretty face, backing up its ample style with a substantial story.  The family’s increasingly tense relations ring upsettingly true, and provide their own kind of horror in addition to the ghostly encounters.  These more traditionally spooky moments happen less frequently than one might assume, but that only serves to heighten their potency.  The movie allows itself only one or two jump scares, but they’re absolute doozies; made all the more effective by being telegraphed in advance.

Like many of its national contemporaries, A Tale of a Two Sisters takes a deliberate pace, and often relies on its intimately small cast to move the story through its quieter parts.  They all prove more than up to the task, with Im and Yum mesmerizing in their dual lead performances as mortal enemies in a bitter, bloody war for familial dominance.  Despite the movie’s title, it’s the tale of stepmother and stepdaughter that gives the movie its power, from its disquieting beginning to its twisted gut-punch of an ending.

The Verdict:  Delivering as both horror and drama, A Tale of Two Sisters never sacrifices artistry for scares, and vice versa.  I give it eight hostile households out of ten.

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