“A great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous.” — Carl Jung
A Tale of Two Sisters is a successful, popular horror film that came out in the early 2000s and was the first major South Korean contribution to the Asian horror movement.
The film, which was inspired by the ancient (oft-filmed) Korean folktale 장화, 홍련 (Janghwa, Hongryeon/”Rose Flower, Red Lotus”), transports the wicked stepmother, emotionally detached father, and the victimized sisters of the original tale to a contemporary Korean setting—and gives it a gothic twist.
The film begins in an institution, where we first meet the clearly traumatized, almost catatonic Su-mi. Su-mi is interrogated by a psychiatrist who tries to draw a response from her, to no avail. Su-mi shows no response at all until she is shown a picture of her family.
Su-mi is taken home by her father after a long recuperation, where she and her beloved younger sister, Su-yeon, meet their stepmother Eun-joo. Eun-joo seems eager to please at first, but she comes off as phony. As the movie progresses, Eun-joo’s façade starts to slip, revealing her true nature.
Su-mi discovers bruises on Su-yeon’s arms, as well as a cut on her wrist, and confronts her stepmother, who admits to punishing Su-yeon. The father, in a subtle, impressive performance by Kim Kap-su—particularly when the plot-twist is considered and earlier events in the film are reconsidered from a new perspective—remains detached, oblivious, and emotionally strained.
At a disturbing, uncomfortable dinner party, a guest begins to convulse from a medical condition, and sees a ghost woman that has also been spotted by Su-mi and Su-yeon. Eun-joo sees the woman too, and insists that strange things have been happening since the sisters returned home. Later, Eun-joo’s pet bird is killed and discovered in Su-yeon’s bed, which sends the woman into a rage. She attacks Su-yeon, beating her and locking her in a wardrobe. After Su-mi finds and rescues her sister, she confronts her father about her stepmother’s continuous abuse.
Then Moo-hyeon drops the bombshell: Su-yeon is dead.
Su-mi refuses to believe her father, however, and later thinks Eun-joo has actually killed her sister. The two fight, and Moo-hyeon later returns home to find Su-mi in the house, alone; the stepmother and the dead sister have disappeared.
A flashback reveals that Su-yeon truly is dead, and the stepmother doesn’t actually exist. The real Eun-joo had been a hired nurse that Su-mi and Su-yeon suspected of having an affair with their father while their ill mother convalesced (it is never made clear what the mother was suffering from, whether it be a mental illness or cancer, for example). A confrontation between Su-mi and Eun-joo eventually leads to unspeakable, heartbreaking, completely shattering tragedy.
The true genius of this film is that while it does indeed fit in the horror genre, it is also a touching, multi-layered meditation on guilt, grief, identity, memory, repression and denial, and stolen youth. Gothic themes—such as dark doubles/duplications, the disintegration of the family, the decaying home, and fractured identity, for example—pervade throughout, as well.
Viewing A Tale of Two Sisters is like peeling back the layers of an onion to get to the center. It is exhilarating to think about all the different ways individual scenes can be viewed after the big reveal, and knowing doesn’t lessen the impact or weaken the film when viewed back through a new lens.
This is more than just a genre film, and touches on something that its American remake only scratches the surface of. If you’ve been avoiding this film because of the poorly received remake, cut it out right now and give A Tale of Two Sisters a chance.
This is a movie that will stick with you for a while.