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A TALE OF TWO SISTERS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Im Soo-Jung, Yeom Jeong-A, Moon Geun-Young, Kim Kab-Su
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Audio: Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Surround 5.1, or DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Tartan
Features: Two commentaries, trailer, Easter egg
Length: 115 minutes
Release Date: March 29, 2005

"After the girls came home, weird things have been happening in this house."

Film ***

Once there were two sisters, Su-mi and Su-yeon, innocent in their youth and devoutly faithful to one another.  Su-mi was the older girl, named for the rose, delicate if ephemeral in grace and beauty.  Her younger sister Su-yeon was named for the lotus, quiet in pensive serenity.  Su-mi enjoyed the unconditional adoration of her younger sister who, unmindful of the general belief that siblings of like years must quarrel, was truly amorous of her older sister.

The sisters lived in a pleasantly rustic cottage.  Their home was situated upon a mild summit that commanded an impressive view of the pastoral lowlands below.  From this idyllic abode, surrounded by fields and meadows, the sisters basked in the perpetually clear skies that graced their days of summer.  Su-mi and Su-yeon contentedly played outdoors as frequently as possible, sometimes swaying lazily upon their swings, and sometimes, weather permitting, wandering the adjacent copses and small shaded lanes.  Hand in hand they would roam, laughing over some trivial secret whose importance only the clarity of youth could ever elucidate.

If the day was warm, the sisters might be found by the banks of a nearby pond, where the waters softly lapping upon the shores whispered beseechingly to the sisters.  Frequently on such days, the sisters might settle upon the jetty that inconspicuously yawned and stretched into the pond.  From there, the sisters could lean back, casually luxuriating in the caress of sunlight upon their faces.

These were happy days, but as with all things, eventually such days must draw to their end.  For Su-mi and Su-yeon, the abruptness with which the solemn gravity of heartbreak descended upon their lives was as unforeseen and cruel as though a sudden crushing weight had landed upon their chests.  One terrible day, a tragedy befell the girls' family, shattering their childhood tranquility, and in consequence the girls were forced to leave for a very long time, removed from the home they had grown to love.

With the passage of time, resplendent days dissolved into disquieting night, summer for crestfallen autumn transformed, the children eventually found release from their blighted convalescence.  Older, sadder, and perhaps wiser, they returned to a dark and foreboding home not yet at rest.  As the dusk of their days arrived with insidious precipitance, so too did the haunts of unfading bereavement and guilt.  Shadows manifested themselves, and coldness beckoned where warmth once lingered.  The echoing patter of fallen footsteps upon the wooden floors, a mournful lament in the dark, doors moving of their own accord, shifting silhouettes in the dark where no man or woman lurked - such nebulous apparitions of the senses and mind engirdled the very sanctity of the girls' treasured remembrances of their former home. What manner of supernatural prejudice, real or imagined, pursued the girls?  What awakened horror was astir in this once cheerful home?

The girls' father, languorous in love, was strangely oblivious to his daughters' distress.  Their step-mother, a young and flighty thing, did little in her perfunctory pantomime of friendship to merit sincere acceptance.  She merely ascribed the sisters' sepulchral mindset to simple insubordination, and as step-mothers are wont to do, subsequently denied the sisters even a facsimile of parental warmth.

So, the sisters simply withdrew further in themselves every passing day.  Encumbered by fatuous memories of times past, tormented by an ensanguine family setting, and pursued in shadows by dolorific visions, Su-mi and Su-yeon slowly succumbed to a perceived doom that surely awaited them.  Their fates were tied, not just to one another but to a past, unresolved and ill-at-ease, destined forevermore to rend the illusory complacency of those living who had engendered it into existence.

Thus was their tale, a tale of two sisters, charmed in youth, haunted in childhood's end.

A Tale of Two Sisters was loosely based on Janghwa Heungryeonjeon, a Joseon Dynasty traditional folk tale.  The film's Korean title was Janghwa, Hongryeon, literally "The Story of Rose and Red Lotus."  Yet in its narrative could be discerned the vestiges of such like-minded ghostly stories as Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" or Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" or even Daphne Du Maurier's "Rebecca."

Part ghost story, part tragedy, A Tale of Two Sisters is a film at the forefront of contemporary Asian horror.  It is a film that recognizes that more than any amount of screen blood, the true terror capable of a psychologically scarring impact festers within the subconscious mind, young or old, healthy or dying.

Video ***

A Tale of Two Sisters is shown in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen format.  Although mildly pixelated, the video quality does manifest good depth of colors with sharp image delineation even in the numerous darker scenes.

Audio ****

The Korean audio options are for Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Surround 5.1, or DTS 5.1.  As with any horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters relies to some degree on aural ambiance to create or enhance its spookier moments.  So, the better your audio system is, the better your watching experience will be!  Not surprisingly, the DTS track is the best one and really immerses listeners into the dark and disturbing world of the sisters of this film.

Features **

Be forewarned!  Watch A Tale of Two Sisters before checking out any of the bonus features.

Aside from the theatrical trailer, this disc contains two commentary tracks.  The first is with director Kim Jee-Woon, cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, and lighting director Seung-chul O.  Their comments focus primarily on framing and composition, shooting angles, and lighting design.  The casual listener who prefers a less technical commentary should instead opt for the second commentary, again with director Kim Jee-Woon but this time with his film's two young stars, Im Soo-Jung and Yeom Jeong-A.  Kim's insightful comments reveal some of the symbolism in the film, whereas the two girls are shy and more predisposed to giggling, not surprisingly.  Still, this is a fairly relaxed and honest commentary and, as director Kim states himself, not as "stuffy" as the first commentary.  The girls are none too shy to directly contradict their director's assertions, either!

Lastly, there is a haunting little Easter egg!  Go to the "options" menu, highlight the "main menu" tab at the bottom, then push the right arrow.  Korean characters will appear!  Click on them for a bonus featurette (5 min.) in the form of a letter read by Su-mi for her sister Su-yeon.  Images from the film, including still photographs and out-takes, accompany this lyrical and poignant recitation which is best experienced after seeing the film first.  As far as Easter eggs go, this is an extremely good one which actually enhances the tragic elements of the film's story; it should really be considered the film's epilogue.

NOTE:  A two-DVD release edition of the film features all the contents of this disc as well as a second disc offering further featurettes, deleted scenes, galleries, and another Easter egg.

Summary:

A Tale of Two Sisters is a ghost story in the most heartbreaking sense.  The film builds to an emotionally devastating conclusion that will not be easily forgotten.  Highly recommended for fans of Asian horror cinema!

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