A Tale of Two Sisters or 장화, 홍련 (2003) is an eerie psychological horror film, reminiscent of American films such as The Others and The Changeling. Although it’s set in the present, the shadowy, timeless ambiance of the Korean-Victorian country home gives it a period feel. For atmosphere, on a scale of 1 to 5, this film rates a 6.
The story is about two girls (Moon Geun Young and Im Soo Jung) who return home to their father (Kim Gab Soo) and new stepmother (Yeom Jeong Ah) after a stay at a mental hospital to recover from the shock of their mother’s death. Or is it? As the film progresses, things get weirder and weirder, until we understand less about what’s going on than we did at the start. The ambiguity between reality and hallucination in this film reminds me a lot of the first half of Hon. Since A Tale of Two Sisters is reputed to be the largest grossing Korean horror film to date, and predates Hon by several years, this is probably not a coincidence. However, Hon does a much better job of using the fantasy element to set a tone without drowning in its own murk.
I’m all for suspense when it’s leading to something, but in A Tale of Two Sisters, the build-up loses focus long before the storyline is hastily wrapped up in the final scenes. The film could have made better use of all that tension if elements of the resolution had been woven in more gradually, and much, much sooner.
As one might expect from the poster, blood abounds, and the film meets all horror requirements for sudden moves by scary figures in odd ways and places. However, the true creepiness of A Tale of Two Sisters lies not in a sense of physical vulnerability, but in the utter helplessness of not being able to trust one’s own brain. The plot is loosely based on a Korean folk story. The folk story’s evil and defamatory stepmother must resonate in Korea, as there have been half a dozen other films based on the same story. But the real strength of this version is its chilling portrayal of the cruelest effect of abuse – corrosion of the victim’s trust in her own perceptions of the world around her.
Although the writing isn’t as engrossing as the mood, A Tale of Two Sisters is worth seeing. Even if its shortcomings leave you unsatisfied, it is undeniably visually arresting, and a necessary entry in any survey of the Korean horror genre.