Making a classic film tends to be one of the motivations of most directors. Sometimes it happens by accident, sometimes it’s incredibly obvious that the film was made to win Oscars. In the horror genre, films aren’t so much remembered for the scares once decades have gone by, but for what kind of story they tell, and how well they tell it. Horror film classics tend to be thoughtful pieces on the human psyche, like Psycho, or tell engaging and suspenseful narratives, like Rosemary’s Baby. But do all horror movie classics hold up to this standard?
Let’s check out one such film, the Korean horror classic Janghwa, Hongryeon or A Tale of Two Sisters.
Released in South Korea in 2003, and in the States in 2004, A Tale of Two Sisters is a staple ofthe Asian-horror classic repertoire. The story follows two young sisters, Su-mi and Su-yeon, who live in a seemingly haunted house with their crazy and abusive stepmother and oblivious father. If you don’t know the twist ending to this movie, then you might want to opt out of this review now. Also, I have no idea how you have surfed the Internet all this time without coming across it, like people who somehow never found out the twist ending to The Sixth Sense.
The basic gist of it is, Su-mi is crazy and is attempting to forget how her little sister Su-yeon was actually crushed to death by a giant closet where their birth mother hung herself in. Thus, the events of the story itself all take place in Su-mi’s mind, where she is playing both the stepmother and herself to cope with her life.
But what we’re going to be dealing with today isn’t the fact of whether or not this film has a good twist per se, but how it holds up a decade later. Why? Because despite all of the hype and the praise, I didn’t really find this movie all that scary. I saw this film last week for the first time, after summoning up enough courage to sit down and watch it with a friend of mine, but I was less than impressed.
Let’s get something out of the way: it’s not because it was a Korean film. I have seen plenty of Korean films and dramas to the point where I’m familiar with most tropes and, for the most part, have never had much issue comprehending or relating to the plot and characters within said media. And I do understand that horror is a factor that degrades with time; I even did a whole article on the topic.
The movie’s issues lie elsewhere. There are parts of the movie that go mostly unexplained – who is the guy who visits the father? And why is his girlfriend/sister/patient/random stranger off the street able to see a person under the sink? The movie plays with this idea that there is both a psychological element, i.e. Su-mi is insane, and a supernatural one, i.e. that yes, there are actually spirits in the house. The problem is they play up the psychological one without really delving into the supernatural one. And while I am aware that in most films, there’s the idea that the boundary between the real world and the spiritual one is way more fluid, that still explains nothing since our narrator is totally unreliable and we don’t know if that’s what really happening and what she’s imagining. There’s nothing wrong with ambiguity, but you need to let the audience in on certain things, otherwise we’re just going to get angry and confused.
Another issue of the film is character motivation. This whole mess starts because the stepmother decides NOT to help the Su-yeon after finding her trapped under closet. Why, because she’s bitter and angry at the two sisters cause they don’t like her? No adult acts like this. Hell, no HUMAN acts like this. The stepmother who we see for the majority of the film is a caricature created by Su-mi to fit into her own delusions, so you can’t assume that’s how she really is. But seriously, letting a little girl get crushed to death, when you’re a nurse of all things?
Not to mention the father is totally shrugging off the problem of his crazy ass daughter who must, at this point, be talking to herself near constantly, or at least staring at the walls for very long periods of time. Why not just leave her in the hospital rather than taking her back to the place where her sister AND mother died? What is he doing this entire time but going in and out of the house for random stuff? You think if you had a traumatized child, you’d at least spend a good deal more time with them than just sort checking in every so often.
But there are also a lot of things this movie does right. The actors are amazing – you forget that you’re watching a movie from time to time because of how real and raw the emotions are. Su-mi and Su-yeon have an undeniable chemistry as sisters, and the relationship is the best part of the film. The stepmother is deliciously evil, and over-the-top without being ridiculous. The cinematography, design, and use of color is mind-blowing. If you can, see this film on a big screen because it’s worth every pixel you’ll use. The house feels big, but very contained – a creepy, unsettling places filled with memories and horrors at every turn.
Overall, A Tale of Two Sisters is a good scary movie, but a better drama/thriller. If you haven’t seen it, go do it just to say you have – it’s not a waste of time. The story, while a little thin in places, is very strong and moving. While I wasn’t impressed as much as I’d hope by it, it certainly held my attention, and even after all this time, deserves all the praise and acclaim it has received.
– Phenomenal acting and soundtrack.
– Great cinematography, fantastic design.
– Too much ambiguity in terms of the story.
– Poor character motivations.
And for those of you waiting for my Cloud Atlas review, hopefully I’ll able to see it soon – Hurricane Sandy has made it sort of impossible to see anything that isn’t available on Netflix or that I didn’t rent on iTunes before the power went out. But maybe next week? To any without power like myself, or currently displaced from your homes and dorms, good luck and be safe. Otherwise, Happy Halloween!