Have you heard the one about the two sisters? Judge Joel Pearce has, and it scared the snot out of him.
"Know what's really scary? You want to forget something, totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can't go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost." -The Stepmother
This Korean horror film is damn scary, but complicated enough that several viewings are required to put the pieces together. Don't worry, though, because this DVD package offers a great way to explore A Tale of Two Sisters multiple times. Just don't blame me if you can't sleep after you watch it.
Facts of the Case
After a long time in medical care, sisters Su-mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) arrive home to their father's large house in rural Korea. The two sisters are greeted by their young stepmother (Jung-ah Yum), who is outwardly friendly. Something seems off, though, and it is clear that Su-yeon is afraid of her and that Su-mi has had conflict with her in the past.
Now, these three women must learn to live with each other under the same roof, which becomes even more difficult when they begin to see evidence of a ghost in the house. Something from the family's past is rearing its ugly head, pitting the women against each other in a dangerous battle.
American horror films with twist endings normally have a moment in which the blind is pulled up and sunlight shines into the dark room, suddenly making the rest of the film startlingly clear. Audience enjoyment of the film hinges on the ability of the filmmakers to surprise the audience and to make that twist at the end as revealing as possible. One of the negative side effects of this technique is that subsequent viewings of the film are often less enjoyable: once you know the twist, the rest of the movie can seem simplistic and dull.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a whole different breed. The first time I watched it, I had a number of guesses where it was heading. At about the halfway mark, however, everything started to unravel. At the end, I had no idea what I had just seen, and it took a second viewing to start to piece it together. This isn't a result of sloppy storytelling, it's just that the answer to what's really happening is more complicated than "character X is actually dead" (to choose a random example). Further viewings allow for deeper meanings and interpretations, a psychological exploration into our understanding of fairy tale worlds. It also doesn't simply end after the sudden revelation, but rather spends some time showing the impact this truth has on the characters and the reasons that things have become so bizarre. It is a puzzle, but unlike The Usual Suspects, we are only ever given the pieces. Director Ji-woon Kim (The Quiet Family) leaves it to us to put them together.
While I don't want to give away any details about the plot, the tone reminds me most of The Others, except far scarier and with a more richly crafted plot. It's been a long time since I've been this creeped out by a movie, and I recommend it highly for the scare factor alone. Of course, fear is highly subjective, but I have rarely seen better visual and sound design in a horror film. Every angle is carefully plotted, and tension builds steadily throughout the film. There are periodic calm moments, but the script and performances are so impressive that these lulls don't feel calculated. We are invited not only to scream with these characters, but also to live with them and join them in their uncovering of the truth.
Tartan Video has released A Tale of Two Sisters in an impressive two-disc set. The video transfer is superb, with vivid colors that perfectly capture the house and its surroundings. Ji-woon Kim makes great use of color, so the quality of the transfer is critical. Detail and black levels are also good, and there is no evidence of compression or print damage. Objects blur slightly during horizontal motion, but it's rarely distracting. The audio is close to perfect, especially the DTS track. The music fills the entire soundstage, ambient noises from the house come from all directions, and scary moments in the film bring the LFE and speakers to horrible, gut-wrenching life. The Dolby 5.1 track has clearly been produced from the same source, but doesn't have quite as much punch. Still, either of these tracks will fill your living room with two hours of blood-curdling screams (including your own).
Both discs are packed with extras. Two commentary tracks supplement the film, one with the Director and members of the crew, the other with the director and members of the cast. I have no idea how good they are, because my screening copy of the DVD didn't include subtitles for the commentaries. I assume this will be changed for the final product.
The second disc is packed to the gills with material. There are a dozen deleted scenes and an outtake reel. The deleted scenes can only be watched with commentary by the director, and it helps to fill in some of the pieces a bit more. I'm glad most of these scenes weren't in the film, though. I can't talk about the outtake reel without ruining the plot.
Next up are the featurettes. They cover all aspects of the production, and are very well produced. They run for approximately an hour in total. The bulk is typical displays of how certain effects were accomplished, but it never turns into self-congratulatory fluff. The interviews are equally good, containing several valuable conversations with Ji-woon Kim. There are interviews with members of the cast which are worth checking out. The last interview is a ridiculous interpretation of the film by a psychiatrist, who uses outdated Freudian and Jungian analysis to explain how accurate the psychology in the film is. The interviews really help to interpret the film, which can be helpful for fascinated-but-confused viewers. Finally there is a still gallery, which you can check out if you are so inclined. I never understood the appeal of still galleries, and this one didn't change my mind.
This is one of the most complete special editions I have seen of an American-released Asian film on DVD, a deserving package for a top-notch horror film.
A Tale of Two Sisters did well in almost every part of the world in 2004, with the exception of North America, where it only received a limited run in theaters. Apparently there's a remake in the works, but now that the DVD is being released, you don't have to wait for a watered down version. Scary films are highly subjective, and I can't guarantee that you will find it as nerve-wracking as I did. I can say with certainty that horror fans will be drawn in by the characters and story. A Tale of Two Sisters contains a number of horror conventions, but handles them creatively. Quick! Get your own copy of the DVD, before someone ruins it for you.
For scaring the pants off me and giving me something to think about for a couple days, A Tale of Two Sisters is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Crew Commentary
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