I was in the mood for something moody this morning, so I caught up with A Tale of Two Sisters, which fit the bill. A South Korean horror movie I missed when it came out in 2003 (it’s already been remade in English, as The Uninvited), A Tale of Two Sisters is slow moving but consistently creepy. It’s told from the point of view of Su-Mi, the older sister, who’s just gotten out of a mental institution when the story starts. We know she’s not quite right, but the film keeps us guessing about just how deluded and dangerous she may be until the final 10 minutes or so.
A Tale of Two Sisters takes the hostility and mutual mistrust that can keep “blended families” from blending and turns the dial up to 11. Are Su-Mi and her cowed little sister the victims of their new stepmother, or is Su-Mi’s overactive imagination making her blame her stepmother for things she never did? And what’s the deal with that stepmother, anyway? Is she hysterical and homicidal, vulnerable and a little pathetic, or some of each? Or is she just a well-meaning but wary woman trying to protect herself and her relationship with Su-Mi’s mysteriously unresponsive father?
The answer is unexpected, which was nice: I hate it when I can see the end coming a mile away in movies like this. I also liked the way A Tale of Two Sisters made everyday things—a whistling teakettle, a hairclip, a wardrobe full of dresses—feel downright sinister. And I appreciated its judicious use of violence and blood, which are inserted mostly in the form of little shards of sound and fury that are over almost as soon as you’ve figured out what’s going on. But what I liked best was the way it took the common complaints of people who feel victimized by a remarriage (“Why am I the one who always has to understand?” “Why aren’t you happy to see me or grateful for all I do for you?”) and made them into grounds for murder. There’s so much emotional brutality in that stuff in real life that it’s cathartic to see it played for thrills.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.