Fairy tales make good horror stories. In fact, they make great horror stories. Just think of most fairy tales that you know and then think of just how disturbing they really are, even though we have no problem telling them to children to teach them all sorts of lessons. In 2003, South Korean film maker Kim Ji-woon decided to make a psychological horror film based off the South Korean fairy tale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, and since then it has been often labeled as one of the most unsettling films of our time and I can completely agree with that statement.
Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) arrive at their lake house where their concerned father (Kim Kap-soo) and domineering step mother (Yeom Jeong-ah) are staying. The time spent there begins with their step mother berating them and only gets worse as time passes, despite Su-mi trying to tell her father how terrible she is to her and her sister. Su-mi and Su-yeon also become much more curious about their mother, who has since died, and this angers their step mother to the point of physical punishment. As the maternal torture continues between the two girls and the step mother, it is clear that there is something else much more sinister in the house that is making its presence known and making it clear that the two sisters have much more to think about and fear than their step mother.
What I love about A Tale of Two Sisters is the fact that this isn’t horror at it’s most traditional. There are a few times where things get spooky in a familiar way, but these aren’t the scenes that make this movie scary. What makes it so frightening is the constant feeling of confusion and dread that is felt throughout the entire movie. The situation that these girls are in is bad enough, but the fact that no one is there to help them makes it even worse. Finally, and I have to say this without spoiling anything, everything you think you know is happening is put to question as the movie reaches its mind bending climax and makes you rethink just how disturbed everyone in this family is.
As with most of the South Korean movies that I’ve seen, this one keeps with the tradition of being beautiful to look at. Kim Ji-woon has earned fame with films like I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and the American film The Last Stand. Obviously to earn international success like that, you have to have a good amount of talent and it shines completely in A Tale of Two Sisters. This is a beautiful movie to look at to the point where it would be just as entertaining to turn the sound off and just watch the images and the colors and how everything moves. Color really pop in this film and the often moving camera seems to just flow from scene to scene. Beautiful stuff, but also haunting.
Let me just use this time to rant at about how this is how horror movies should be made. It’s annoying to go into these kinds of movies now and expect jump scares that may freak you out for a second, but won’t last with you. When I see a horror movie, I want to think about why it was so terrible. I don’t want the film makers to tell me why. Audiences are smart enough to be able to watch a horror movie and have scares in it that aren’t obvious or loud, but legitimately frightening. That’s where A Tale of Two Sisters succeeds the most.
A Tale of Two Sisters is slow moving and quiet, but also one of the prettiest and most disturbing horror films that I have ever seen. What’s great about this movie isn’t quite the fear that you feel during the scariest parts, but rather it’s the uncomfortable feeling you have throughout the whole movie. Being able to create a feeling like that and hold it for an entire movie is something to commend and respect. I would easily put this film on a list of my favorite horror films, and it’s one that any horror buff shouldn’t miss out on.