The creative explosion of Korean cinema at the beginning of the 21st century featured films of incredible diversity in style and subject matter. Park Chan-wook took techniques from exploitation movies and brought operatic stylings to the revenge genre in his trilogy consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. Lee Chang-dong examined the issues plaguing traditional Korean patriarchy with a limpid eye in Oasis and Secret Sunshine. Bong Joon-ho would make tragicomedies about both law enforcement and the negative effects of American capitalism in Memories of Murder and The Host respectively. All these directors and a handful of others would be responsible for the prestige that new Korean cinema continues to have to the present day, but one figure stands out for the very reason he is not as well-known as his peers – Kim Jee-woon, the director of A Tale of Two Sisters.
Kim Jee-woon may be lumped in with his fellow auteurs, but his style and concerns are probably the hardest to pin down. His films include Tale, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and even The Last Stand, his lone American effort starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. All of these films are either great or at least very interesting to watch, but they don’t bear a unique imprint of auteurism unlike many of his peers. He may be more of a skilled journeyman rather than a star auteur, but perhaps it is best to describe Kim as more of a chameleon.
Indeed, A Tale of Two Sisters is an excellent example of how Kim takes different influences and distills them into something unique. Sumi (Im Soojung) has just been released from a mental hospital. She is reunited with her sister Suyeon (Moon Geunyoung) at their isolated country house. Her father has remarried to a much younger woman named Eunjoo (Yum Jung-ah).
Sumi’s attitude towards Eunjoo is instantly cold, and the tenseness of their relationship will underlie some of the more bizarre, worrying events in this film, including the murder of the pet bird and a mysterious bloody bag.
Tale is based on a famous Korean fairy tale that had been adapted to film several times before. The original tale might be even more violent and twisted than this film, but Kim also brings an intense awareness of the psychology of his characters. Tale also indulges in a few good scares that are typical of the horror genre, but it also has an air of romanticism, most significantly through the lush score by Lee Byung-woo.
Kim’s greatest departure and innovation for Tale may be the elaborate house where most of the film takes place, which is basically a Gothic castle that happens to be in Korea. Perhaps Kim wasn’t necessarily thinking of the Gothic genre in thinking of this film, but he certainly nailed its tropes. The shadowy house accurately reflects the confused psyche of Sumi. Not only is there rarely a scene inside that is brightly lit, but we deliberately are left in the dark as the exact geography of the house. The Gothic genre was also obsessed with vulnerable women and how both their sanity and their sexuality were threatened in the most insidious ways. There is an Electra-like jealousy that tinges the relationship between Sumi and Eunjoo. Ghosts are manifestations of Sumi’s psychological hangups, which is why the women around her act in such extreme, unbelievable ways.
An aspect of this film that is never remarked upon by Western viewers is the language, which is a crucial part of this film. Korean is a rigidly hierarchical language, with a formal tone (jeondaemal) and informal tone (banmal) burned into the language at its core. Even within jeondaemal, there are different shades of formality, which corresponds to whom you are speaking. Calling a significantly older person by their first name might not seem like a big deal to Western viewers, but in Korean, it’s possibly as offensive as swearing to not afford an older person the proper level of respect.
So when Sumi talks to Eunjoo in banmal, it would have set off alarm bells in any Korean speaker. This informality can certainly be indicative of how much Sumi resents Eunjoo, but it’s not unusual to express anger while speaking formally. The fact that she breaks formality is not only shocking, but it indicates that the dynamic of the relationship between the two is off. It could be attributed to the fact that the age difference between stepdaughter and stepmother is relatively small. Indeed, there’s only a seven-year age difference between Im Soojung and Yum Jung-ah, though it’s unclear what ages both women are supposed to be playing.
The dynamic between these two characters becomes clearer after the big reveal, which may come off as predictable to viewers who are more attuned to plot machinations. Yet even as A Tale of Two Sisters might tread familiar territory, it does it with a finesse rarely found in movies that have a “twist”. For Tale, the twist is not so much a huge reveal as it is the denouement of Sumi realizing her tragic flaw – that she is the perpetrator of the evil that she sees around her. Yet, the film does not condemn her and even if Sumi may have been imagining quite a few events and people through her own twisted perspective, it did not come from nowhere. The father is a distant man with no clue how to be present for his daughter, and the real Eunjoo, though seemingly far from the monster that Sumi imagines her to be, is still cold and harboring a dark secret. So what Sumi imagines is exaggerated but not untrue. And that is perhaps Kim Jee-woon’s most potent observation and distinguishing mark of Tale, that the evils a character may perpetrate always reflect, in some way, the environment in which they are raised.