A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is the latest Asian ghost story to hit U.S. shores, following in the wake of RING and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. Like those two Japanese horror films, this South Korean production is slated for an American remake. Having just seen TALE OF TWO SISTERS on its opening ngiht at the Nuart Theatre, it’s a little puzzling wondering what DreamWorks hopes to make of the story when they refashion it for American audiences.
Director Kim Jee-Woon makes use of techniques that will be familiar to fans of Easter ghost stories (e.g., the ghost woman with long black hair obscuring her face), and the scare scenes are quite effective. Not only that, the entire film creates a sense of growing dread as it tells the tale of two sister who return home after a stay in a mental hospital.
Readjusting to “normal” life is not easy. Dad is distance and ineffective. Mom is dead, replaced by a step-mom whose attempts at looking cheerful seem almost psychotic in their forced exaggeration — until she drops her happy face and harasses her stepchildren mercilessly. As if all this were not enough, the family’s isolated house in the woods appears to be haunted.
We say “appears” because most of the supernatural phenomenon is observed by the older daughter, whose stay in a mental hospital leads us to suspect the reality of what she sees. In short, Kim Jee-Woon wants us to see the “haunting” as an externalization of the tensions within the family. Maybe their real, or maybe they’re hallucinations; either way, their root lies in the dark secrets of the family’s past.
The result is an “art house” horror film that can be taken seriously (and praised to high heaven) by critics who dismissed THE GRUDGE a few months ago. Kim Jee-Woon’s serious approach has its merits, but it also creates some problems that mar, without ruining, the film’s effectiveness.
This is the sort of movie that is in no hurry to get going. The editing lingers over long takes of the gorgeous photography — either because the images are supposed to be imbued with hidden meaning that takes time to figure out, or just because it all looks so pretty that no one had the heart to pare things down to a faster pace.
The story is also built around a double surprise twist that you will see coming if you pay close attention. The problem is not the surprise — the film plays fair, dropping clues so that you can make sense of what’s happening after the revelation hits — but that the whole point of the story seem to be to build up to this revelation and then stop.
In other words, the film keeps its premise hidden from the audience until nearly the end. Then, the revelation of that premise is treated as the climax, even though the revelation does not resolve the story in any way. (Imagine THE SIXTH SENSE if the story had simply revealed the truth about Bruce Willis character without the character himself realizing it.)
Equally troubling, once the truth of what happening is revealed, the film does not leave viewers on solid ground. The final scenes may be flashbacks revealing the source of the family’s grief, or they may be distorted memories — even wish-fulfillment revenge-justification fantasies.
The film is clever enough in its deceptions to remain an interesting intellectual puzzle that feels as if it is worth sorting out, but that’s all it is. Once you’ve put the pieces in place, you may feel you know what happened. What’s sadly missing is the answer to the obvious question: now that we know what happened in the past, what will happen next?
I’m sure the American remake will tag an upbeat happy ending onto the story. It’s to Kim Jee-Woon’s credit that he did not go for this easy option. It’s nice when a director gives his audience credit for being able to sort things out on their own. But it would have been nice if he had dropped a few hints or laid more ground work for us extrapolate into the future.