Welcome to Writerly Wednesdays 33 and please join me in welcoming the lovely Deb Atwood, author, to my blog. Today, thanks to Deb's wonderful suggestion, we are doing something a little different. We both share a love of ghost stories and we have done a joint review of one we both enjoyed. We very much hope you enjoy the result.
Please note the review has one small explicit spoiler in it, but discusses the rest of the film in very general terms.
A Tale of Two Sisters - A Review
Nationality: South Korean
Im Soo-jung as Bae Su-mi
Moon Geun-young as Bae Su-yeon
Yum Jung-ah as Heo Eun-joo
Kim Kap-soo as Bae Moo-hyeon
Lee Seung-bi as Mi-hee (Eun-joo's sister in law)
Lee Dae-yeon as Su-mi's doctor
Park Mi-hyun as Mrs Bae (Moo-hyeon's first wife and Su-mi's and Su-yeon's mother)
Woo Ki-hong as Sun-kyu (Eun-joo's brother)
Summary (from Wikipedia): Two sisters, after returning home from a psychiatric hospital, experience increasingly disturbing events involving both them and their stepmother.
D = Deb, T = Tasha
D Q1. Did this movie give you a kind of fairy tale feeling?
T: Yes it did. It very much seemed to have all the fairy tale tropes. There was the wicked stepmother, the ineffectual father and the abused children in need of vindication. All very much classic fairy tale fair. However, I think it's the addition of the ghostly aspect and what we learn about the mother lifts it out of simply the fantasy genre and nudges it into horror. It felt to me very much like a crossover film.
It wasn't a full on horror, like a title along the lines of The Evil Dead or The Thing, but it did have a couple of moments that gave me a nice scare.
D: True, I can’t really think of any fairytales with ghosts, so it’s cool how the director combines ghostly elements with traditional fairytale tropes. In addition to the wicked stepmother and the befuddled father, the bag and the bird were familiar fairytale objects even though treated differently here.
Interestingly, Tale of Two Sisters is based on an old Joseon dynasty fairytale called “Janghwa, Hongreon,” and I love how the director interpreted the old story into a psychological ghost tale. Janghwa, Hongreon refers to sisters Rose and Lotus, and that title made me think of the folk story “Snow White and Rose Red” - two sisters who were also named for trees.
T Q1. Continuing the idea of imagery, do you think they were going for a twist on the whole Red Riding Hood, coming of age metaphor with the girls?
D: So, thanks to your question, I had to do a little research on Red Riding Hood’s cloak. I'd always thought of the wolf as a sexual predator, but I'd never considered the blood/maturation symbolism of the red cloak. Wow! Definitely an eye-opener for me. And yes, I would say the coming of age element exists in Tale of Two Sisters as well (and even more so in the fairytale on which this film is based, which focuses on chastity and sexuality).
T: Funny how so many fairy tales have an obsession with female sexuality, isn't it? I've just been to read the fairy tale Tale of Two Sisters is based on and it's just as brutal as western fairy tales isn't it. Makes sense of some of the imagery I didn't quite get as well. It's always interesting how our viewing of a film can change when cultural or story references are made clear.
D Q2. What did you think of the ghostly images/effects in this film compared to other ghost movies?
T: They felt very traditionally Asian to me, shocking and unrelatable to living humans, which is what makes them so scary. Without them it would have simply been a psychological horror and I think their addition adds well to the film. There was the whole psychological aspect to the whole story, but bringing in the supernatural element gave it more substance, making the ending stand out more to me, than it would have otherwise.
The effects weren't as horrific as something like Teke Teke or Ju-on, but they still had that air of menace. They gave the film a creepy vibe that kept me watching.
D: Some viewers might find this film slow, but I felt the shadowy images, dark spaces, and slowmo effects worked well. Many shots of shuffling feet and the sound of creaking doors add to the eerie tone. Sometimes creatures in horror films are so grotesque or outlandish that I’m pulled out of the story, which I find annoying.Tale of Two Sisters doesn’t fall into that trap and is richer because of it.
T Q2: Which actress do you think played the most outstanding role as one of the sisters, Su-jeong Lim as Soo-mi (the dominant sister) or Geun-young Moon as Soo-yeon (the quiet one)?
D: I loved Moon’s portrayal of Soo-yeon. I’m a sucker for innocent, vulnerable children, and I think she did a beautiful job in that role. However, Lim had the more difficult part to play with many emotional and psychological shifts, so I’d have to vote for her.
T: They were both so good weren't they? If either one of them had been weaker actresses it would have unbalanced the film, but they played off each other so well. I think I have to agree with you, Lim gets my vote too, even though Moon was brilliant.
T Q3. These days, thanks to M. Night Shyamalan, we are used to big twists in plots, but did you see the twist coming in this one?
D: Nope, not at all. Silly me! I didn’t anticipate the Tale of Two Sisters ending, and yet when it came, I thought it was perfect. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, a favorite ghost film of mine, is one you have to see twice. Once you know the ending, you can go back and piece it together. Like my experience with The Sixth Sense, I found I needed to watch Tale of Two Sisters again. I noticed many details I had not seen the first time, which helped my understanding of the plot twists, especially some related to the stepmother.
Kim Jee-woon’s film is more complex than Shyamalan’s with its fragmented timeline and dream states underscored by the tension between madness and the supernatural. That ambiguity—what is ghost, what is hallucination, what is repressed memory?—messed with my head a bit (in a good way) and made me think of James’s The Turn of the Screw and Morrison’s Beloved.
T: I have to admit, I usually prefer my horror less literary, but I really did enjoy this one. I also have another confession - I knew part of the twist going in. I read a review of the US remake, The Uninvited, which didn't mention it had spoilers, so I knew some of what was going on from the beginning. However, in a way it made it that much more confusing and interesting and I totally didn't see the second part coming.
You're right, I think I must watch it again to gather all the details about what's going on, rather than half the picture I had the first time.
I love The Sixth Sense too - such a great movie. Unfortunately I have been rather disappointed with most of Shyamalan's other films.
T Q4: Did you find the part with the Uncle's wife a bit unnecessary and odd? THIS IS THE SPOILER
D: The whole dinner scene with Stepmom’s brother and his wife felt odd to me. What I didn’t like was the stepmother’s manic behavior. I appreciate the way the director developed her in the last section of the film as someone more layered than simply wicked, and I guess maybe he was trying to do that in the dinner scene, but her affect at dinner didn’t mesh with the other parts of her personality. A flaw, I’d say.
I didn’t have a problem, though, with Uncle’s wife’s seizure, partly because of conversations between Stepmom and Soo-mi in which they agreed the house possessed a strange presence. That made more sense to me when I thought about the house in Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, another one of those ambiguous stories that plays neurosis against paranormal.
T: I found the scene quite hard to watch; it made me uncomfortable, and not in a way that the rest of the film did. I agree, the stepmother's behaviour felt out of place at the time, but given what comes later I can see why the director made the choice. It kind of fits when you know everything, I think.
It was actually the whole part with the Uncle's wife's seizures that bothered me more. It just seemed so random and out of the blue. Over the top is how I felt about it.
I have only seen The Haunting - the modern remake of The Haunting of Hill House, so I will take your word for it. I keep seeing bits of the original film made from the book, but have not sat all the way through it yet. Another one that is good for the effect of houses on people, but it totally not ambiguous, is Rose Red by Stephen King.
D: I heartily recommend this movie to viewers who enjoy a more nuanced experience than the usual gasp-inducing ghost fare. The cinematography and soundtrack add depth to a compelling story. Though I was troubled by the dark family dynamics, I was touched by the sisters’ devotion to each other.
Thank you, Tasha, for hosting this discussion of Tale of Two Sisters. I had so much fun indulging myself in my ghost fiction fixation and hope you did, too!
T: I did, thank you so much for suggesting such a wonderful film and reviewing it together.
About the Author
Deb Atwood holds an MFA and lives in California with her husband and rescue dog Nala. Her time-slip novel, Moonlight Dancer, was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas. Deb's interests include ghost fiction and films, Korean culture, dogs, quilting, and, of course, reading. She loves to wander around old cemeteries and peek in mausoleums. Deb blames this odd fascination on the television program Dark Shadows, which she watched as a child.
Book InfoPen In Her Hand know, Atwood is passionate about ghost fiction. Since 2011, Atwood has read, re-read, and written about ghost literature. 31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die presents a selection of the best of these posts.
Among the books discussed are old favorites (The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson) as well as some indie gems few people will know about (The 20’s Girl, the Ghost, and All That Jazz by June Kearns). There are ghost novels for every reader, in genres ranging from historical to literary to romance.