I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.
Kim Ji-Woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) (South Korea, 2003) is such an agile blending of existing psychological horror ingredients that I couldn’t imagine that the whole thing would hold together as its own film. But Kim pulled it off, admirably, even if it takes a great deal of post-viewing afterthought, or even a second viewing, to piece it together. There are echoes of David Lynch, Val Lewton, Dario Argento, Robert Wise’s ‘The Haunting,’ M. Night Shamalyan, Alfred Hitchcock, Japanese ‘J-horror’– and you’ll spot a few of your own pet references as well, no doubt, all employed with seamless technical mastery and an unlikely but effective combination of irreproachable narrative structure and stylistic reckless abandon.
As the film starts, a father (Kim Kap-Su) is bringing his two daughters home after a long absence, and while the girls seem content to be back in their home, they’re less than enthusiastic about meeting their new stepmother, Eun-Joo (Yum Jung-Ah). The elder sister, Soo-mi (Lim Su-Jeong) is openly derisive of Eun-Joo, and is convinced that she bears a cruel and illogical grudge against her gentle younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-Young). A battle of wills ensues between the somewhat eccentric stepmother, who is doing her diligent best to take the reins of this wounded family, and the girls, who are still processing the death of their mother. Things get uncomfortable, then testier, then outrightly physically aggressive before we learn a very valuable piece of information from the father, who has been suspiciously calm up until this point. It’s noteworthy that this revelation comes so early (a little over halfway) in the film; it explains a great deal about the dynamics we’ve been witness to thus far, but it also opens up a whole new world of psychological, and possibly supernatural, weirdness. But Kim is scrupulous about keeping us with his characters – keeping the film grounded in their behavior – and not letting what might be going on around them distract us.
Whatever film schools these Korean guys have been going to are very good at what they’re doing. All of these ‘Korean New Wave’ films are brilliantly shot (the cinematographer here is Lee Mo-Gae) and edited (Lee Hyeon-Mi), but Kim Ji-Woon’s strong hand and conceptual smarts are equally evident. Lee Byung-Woo composed the minimal but remarkable music score. Kim wrote the screenplay as well – the basic story is a Korean folktale (‘Janghwa, Hongryeon’ means ‘Rose Flower and Red Lotus’) – but Kim’s modern-day embellishments are a very nice twist on the original story.
It’s a fearless but well-orchestrated horror film, and, if I haven’t mentioned it yet, it’s pretty damn scary as well. Gore-phobes, fear not; Kim is far more concerned here with suspense and surprises than just jumping out at you out of the dark, or grossing you out. (He got to do that later, with his grueling but excellent ‘I Saw The Devil’). This was a terrific discovery for me, and I suspect most of you will agree. I heartily recommend it.