“A Tale of Two Sisters” – A.J. Hakari

You’ve heard of the Grimm fairy tales, right? Well, consider A Tale of Two Sisters to be more of a grim, scary tale. Unfortunately, though, this acclaimed South Korean horror movie slowly comes undone by dragging out certain scenes and attempting to be too complex.


After a stay in a mental institution for unknown reasons, sisters Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) are finally returning home. However, the atmosphere is less than welcoming. Their father (Kap-su Kim) wanders around in a complacent daze, and their new stepmother (Jung-ah Yum) seems to be hiding some traits of cruelty underneath a cheery facade. The sisters spend their time in this big, lonely house banding together, looking at pictures of their deceased mother and wishing things were back to the way they used to be. But, as is customary in films of this manner, ominous events start to take place at the isolated abode. A ghostly presence slowly makes itself known to the girls, and Su-yeon is showing increasing signs of physical abuse, with blame pointing toward the stepmother. With their father all too oblivious to the danger taking place under his own roof, it’s up to the sisters to stick together and uncover the truth behind past tragedies in order to face an evil force that’s slowly closing in on them.


The cool thing about the best Asian horror cinema is that such films tend to emphasize plot and character development as much as they concentrate on ratcheting up the scare factor. This enhances a movie’s effectiveness because you care about the people suddenly thrust into a horrifying situation instead of viewing them merely as fodder for whatever ghost or masked killer is on the loose. However, the film’s aims often can become blurred and confused, and this is where A Tale of Two Sisters runs into problems. Although showing much promise and boasting gorgeous cinematography as well as plenty of eerie atmosphere, it flounders when trying to fulfill both of its genre objectives — to simultaneously frighten viewers and absorb them with a dramatic storyline.


A Tale of Two Sisters takes its time to tell its story, so those expecting thrills to be delivered at a fast and furious pace will be sorely disappointed. Writer/director Ji-woon Kim uses a much more methodical approach, and for a while, it works wonders. He deliberately keeps the viewer in the dark for the sake of drawing them further into the story, never starting to clue them in on what could possibly be the cause of all the silence, awkward pauses, and ill feelings running rampant throughout the house until well into the running time. Kim keeps the audience guessing, but despite a chilling atmosphere (what little actual “scares” there are come across as truly freaky, especially the first appearance of the ghost) and a round of solid, low-key performances that bring to life dark themes involving sins of the past and uneasy family relations, A Tale of Two Sisters is not able to maintain its delicate balancing act for very long. It runs out of steam late into the second act and tries to compensate by becoming too confounding for its own good, leaning on the faint strength of a plot twist as an 11th-hour means of explaining away its ambiguity and the more confusing turns taken by the story.


At least this sometimes classy and creepy film doesn’t fall victim to the pretentious trappings that claimed such potentially brilliant films as Pulse and Marebito, but it’s still something of a letdown considering how much praise has been lavished upon it by the horror community. While better than most American-made movies of this genre, A Tale of Two Sisters barely amounts to two-thirds of a really good film.


Rating: ★★½☆


-A.J. Hakari

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