There’s some interesting cross-cultural pollination going on between Asian and American cinemas. We borrow their creepy, supernatural film ideas (The Ring, The Grudge) and they copy our moody but pristine cinematography and fractured narrative style (The Sixth Sense, Memento). Take, for instance, South Korea’s latest contribution to the undead-girl-with-long-black-hair-covering-her face genre, A Tale Of Two Sisters.
Loosely based on a Korean folktale of the same name, director Kim Jee-Woon’s jigsaw puzzle of a film emulates the lush eeriness of The Others while shattering the supernatural storyline with narrative jumps, haunting nightmares and sudden flashbacks that unexpectedly bubble and pop.
Sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon return home after spending time at a mental institution for undisclosed reasons. There’s a strangely close bond between the girls, and Su-mi is fiercely protective of her younger sister, especially when it comes to their wicked stepmother, Eun-joo.
Overtones of abuse and dark secrets lurk in the shadows of the family home, and it isn’t long before strange noises echo in the hallways and unsettling apparitions lurk beneath the furniture.
Tension simmers between the women, and a not-entirely unexpected plot twist halfway through the film forces us to re-evaluate what we’ve seen. It’s only the first of several surprises. Director Jee-Woon wants to keep his audience unbalanced and disoriented by intentionally misleading us with scenes that may be real or imagined. It isn’t until the end that all the tragic pieces finally fall into place.
Two Sisters was a big hit in its native Korea, where audiences returned multiple times to unravel the tangled threads of the story. I’m not certain the mystery is worth all of Jee-Woon’s cinematic contortions, but he’s assembled an effective cast, some beautifully moody images and enough scares to hold your interest.
The house that provides the setting for most of the film is a star in its own right. Decorated with deep floral patterns on the walls and a tasteful mix of modern and rustic accents, it’s the kind of place that should feel warm and welcoming but instead seems creepy and foreboding. Every intricate flowery whorl and well-varnished floorboard seems to hide something otherworldly and evil. I’ll never look at the space beneath my kitchen sink the same.
While the film may not evoke the visceral dread of Japan’s Ringu or Ju-On, it does boast a suffocating atmosphere and a disjointed storyline that turns the screws on your nerves while leaving you to puzzle over the plot.
Predictably, Dreamworks Studio has picked up the rights to A Tale of Two Sisters with intentions of Americanizing the story. This will no doubt twist the film’s lineage of cinematic influences into something wholly unrecognizable. Given the film’s zigzag plotline, it somehow seems appropriate.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak); 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].