Kim Jee-woon's "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a tour de force of psychological horror at its creepiest. It is endlessly clever and confounding, achieving an aura of ambiguity but building to an intricate bravura finish in which heretofore closely held secrets quite literally come tumbling out of a closet.
A teenager, perhaps 16, is led into a vast bare interrogation room in a mental institution where she is seated across from a questioning psychiatrist. Her head is slumped forward, her long hair covering her face. She is completely unresponsive to the questions until asked to relate to events happening on "that day." She remains mute, but the question triggers her memories, which launches a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
She is Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), and she is returning home with her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) after their stay in a hospital for unspecified reasons. When the girls arrive at a large, handsome but somewhat forbidding house by a lake they first sun themselves on a wharf, and it soon becomes clear they're dreading facing their icy, glamorous stepmother Eun-Joo (Yeom Jeong-a), who greets them in a rigid, brittle manner that verges on hysteria -- and perhaps madness. They are no happier to see her than she is to see them.
The girls have scarcely settled into their respective rooms than strange sounds and happenings start to occur, along with horrific nightmares experienced by both girls. It is clear that Eun-Joo is a monster, and although hatred between her and the defiant Su-mi is mutual and intense, it would seem that the stepmother focuses on her younger stepdaughter, harassing her continually. The girls' doctor father, Mu-hyun (Kim Kab-su), seems preoccupied, obtuse and in downright denial about how his wife seems to have dedicated her life to making her stepdaughters as miserable as possible.
With much cleverness, imagination and finesse, Kim Jee-woon seems to make everything seem as it appears to be yet nothing seem as it appears to be -- simultaneously. He deliberately makes it difficult, indeed all but impossible, to say for sure what's actually going on at any given time.
It seems pretty certain that Eun-Joo is evil and destructive and could prove to be a veritable Lady Macbeth driven mad with guilt over some dark deeds in the past. Kim is highly skilled at keeping a viewer intrigued and guessing, coming up with all manner of unsettling -- to put it mildly -- events and a couple of revelations that are perfectly timed for maximum impact -- akin to a one-two punch.
Kim gets the absolute most out of his atmospheric setting, a home in a kind of Korean Craftsman style that perhaps might be inviting were it not so dark and so formal in its primarily Beaux Arts decorations. He does the same with his cast, with Im's Su-mi and Yeom's Eun-Joo squaring off as if each believed her sanity was at stake, and in a sense it is.
"A Tale of Two Sisters" is a triumph of stylish, darkly absurdist horror that even manages to strike a chord of Shakespearean tragedy -- and evokes a sense of wonder anew at all the terrible things people do to themselves and each other.
'A Tale of Two Sisters'
MPAA rating: R for some violence and disturbing images
Times guidelines: Horror/gore, adult themes; absolutely not for children
A Tartan Films release of an iPictures presentation. Writer-director Kim Jee-woon. Producers Oh Gi-min, Oh Jeung-wan, Cinematographer Lee Mo-gae. Editors Lee Hyun-mi, Kim Jin-hee. Music Lee Byeong-woo. Costumes Ok Soo-kyung. Production designer Cho Geun-hyun. In Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
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