Directed & written by Kim Ji-woon
As the film opens, a doctor tries to interview a patient who never
speaks. He asks if she remembers the family photo he shows her, and
urges her to tell him the truth from now on.
In the next sequence, Su-mi and her sister Su-yeon climb out of the
family car after a long drive home with their father. They take a look
around the yard and inside the house, then exchange a few words with
their skittish stepmother.
The girls settle in to their rooms, and try to assume a normal
schedule. But something is wrong in the house. Strange noises,
nightmares, and an ongoing conflict with their stepmother cause Su-mi
and Su-yeon a great deal of anxiety, which brings them closer to each
other but makes them more vulnerable to threats from outside. Every
attempt to convince their skeptical father that his new wife is
dangerous makes them seem less believable. Meanwhile, the stepmother is
becoming more weird and threatening with every encounter.
If you liked Tell Me Something or Phone you will probably find A Tale of Two Sisters engaging.
The director also made two of my favorite films: the dark and hilarious The Quiet Family, and a comedy of corporate ambition and wrestler's revenge, The Foul King.
A Tale of Two Sisters is currently being remade in English for a 2008 release. (Note that the dts produced DVD has subtitles which occasionally lag
behind the dialog, so that the tempo of speech is not always maintained
by the translation.)
SPOILER WARNING - Stop here if you have not seen the film yet and don't want to know what happens.
Some people find torture scenes more frightening than a plot based on
the agony of loss and grief. But I think grief is the starting point
for horror. What we create in the void that follows defines us as
believers or non-believers, as those who go on or those who cannot go on
without a fundamental shift in how we view, and interact with, the
A Tale of Two Sisters is about grief, identity, and guilt. It
poses the idea that deep, realistic guilt (structured around a true and
catastrophic lapse in judgment) may only be assuaged by embracing the
object of one's regret and becoming one with it.
This is abuser-identification in reverse: You become the being you
have wronged, in order to live with what you have done. But the film
goes one step farther, suggesting that madness can be infectious. And if
you believe in the supernatural, the film suggests that guilt and
madness may even summon the spirit of a dead person who has been
As you watch this film a second time, pay close attention to the
camera angles and clothing. Note the physical relation of characters to
one another in each scene. Note that there are times when the
stepmother's ensemble is a combination of colors the two sisters are
wearing. At another time, we see a flashback shot of Su-mi wearing a
blouse worn by the stepmother in a previous version of the same scene.
She duplicates the stepmother's action as well, taking medication at the
story is full of duplicates--an extra notebook and pen set; an
identical pair of pajamas; a closet loaded with copies of one outfit. A
dead bird appears in two places, apparently at the same time. Su-mi
discovers that her sister and her stepmother have started their period
on the same day. How likely? Not very.
Once you have learned the truth about Su-mi and Su-yeon, watch the
stepmother closely. Her appearance is entirely different, after Su-mi's
father decides the girl is ill enough to need re-hospitalization. The
stepmother now wears a gray suit, her hair and makeup are softened, and
her manner is gentler and more natural. All of this tells us that the
previous version of the stepmother was one manufactured by remorse and
hatred. The actual stepmother is merely the inspiration for the one in
The last few scenes imply that the stepmother, who may seem concerned
about her husband's daughter but who was nevertheless responsible for
the tragedy that triggered her first breakdown, is now haunted. You may
decide that she is finally collapsing emotionally under the weight of
what she has done. Or you may think that the house itself is responding
to the call of insanity sent round by Su-mi's visit, and the unjustly
injured are rising to take their revenge.
Either way, in the last flashback, you will be both moved and
disturbed by the sight of the defiant Su-mi striding away from her house
while something horrible and irrevocable occurs inside, changing her
state of being forever. It is one of those petty, little moments of
neglect we have all indulged in, never knowing what terrible
consequences might follow.