It’s no secret that Western horror films tend to encapsulate social anxieties that must be stamped out by a conservative, traditional force. Such allegorical styles often fall into either socio-political anxieties, as with zombie films such as Romero’s catalogue of work including Dawn of the Dead (1978), or feminist/youth/sexual freedom in teen slasher films, such as the Halloween (1978-2009) series. Occasionally a psychoanalytic classic horror like Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) will be released to critical acclaim, yet after the furore has died down generic films depicting unrestrained teenage rebellion rise once more.
Asian horror films are markedly different. The allegorised social anxieties are more spiritual in nature and are often located within the homestead, exploring notions of family, technology, and ethical behaviour exemplified by films such as the Ring series (1998), Ju-on: The Grudge series (2003-2012), and The Eye series (2002). As with the West, attempts are made to control the disturbances yet they tend to be more patriarchal in nature, and the father/senior’s attempts at control often make the situation worse. Ultimately, the protagonist must unveil the mystery behind the source of horror, rather than suppress it. As such, Asian horror films are more inherently psychological in nature as they explore ‘the self’ in conjunction with spirituality whilst rejecting male chauvinism.
A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련) not only exemplifies this trend, but is also an incredible and unique addition to the genre. Soo-mi (수미, Im Soo-jeong (임수정) and younger sister Soo-yeon (수연, Moon Geun-yeong (문근영) return to their family home in the country after a trip away. It’s not long before the sisters come into conflict with their new spiteful step-mother Eun-joo (은주, Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아), while their stoic father Moo-hyeon (무현, Kim Kap-soo (김갑수) looks on.
Loosely based on a Joseon-era folktale, A Tale of Two Sisters is a chilling, atmospheric, and engaging film from start to finish. This is chiefly due to auteur Kim Ji-woon (김지운) who continually displays an incredible talent for playing with genre conventions and is masterful in creating suspense and terror. He integrates and evolves visual motifs seamlessly such as his exquisite use of colour to reflect whether a protagonist is safe or potentially in peril, such as the cool blue safety of the duvet covers, the eerie unsettling green of the furniture, and the horrific blood red decor in the dining room. Kim Ji-woon combines this eye for colour with a Kubrickian sense of symmetry (a la The Shining) and slow, long tracking shots through shadowy corridors and rooms that turns a peaceful family home into a labyrinthian horror. The motifs of flowers that beautifully adorn the wallpaper throughout the house initially, later become a tangled and sinister web of vines that threaten to engulf those who stand before it. Combined, the homestead is not only a source of horror but also alive and evolving as the sisters descend into the mystery.
Soo-mi and Soo-yeon must not only contend with the ever-changing architecture, but also their vindictive step-mother. Visiting an old cabin in the neighbouring woods, Soo-mi finds old pictures and reveals that Eun-joo was previously her mother’s nurse. Enraged and paranoid, the sisters create further tension in their relationship with their ‘new mother’ as motives are questioned and clues are found. Compounding the tension further is the fact that all the protagonists begin to hear and see the supernatural, so that suspicion and mistrust are commonplace. The performances by all three actresses are engaging and compelling as each struggles with themselves and their environment, and expertly convey the tense, terrifying situations in which they find themselves.
A Tale of Two Sisters is an incredibly detailed and psychological horror that ranks among the upper echelons of the genre. Writer/director Kim Ji-woon plants enough red herrings and twists amongst his superb use of mise-en-scene that, from start to finish, makes the film an entrancing and enthralling viewing experience. If there are any criticisms to be highlighted, it would be that certain scenes of horror could perhaps be more inventive in their presentation, but this is a minor quibble. A Tale of Two Sisters is a fascinating journey of familial tension, teenage angst, and the supernatural and comes highly recommended.