Film & DVD Review
Two sisters, Su-mi (Im Su-Jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-Yeong), come home after recovering from a long illness. Their new stepmother Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-A) welcomes them, but Su-mi, the elder sister, intentionally avoids her while Su-yeon is quite scared of her wierd stepmother. After their first dinner back home, Su-mi and Su-yeon go to bed in their dark and dismal rooms. One day, Mu-hyun (the girls' father) goes into town and Su-mi can't find her siser Su-yeon anywhere. Feeling petrified, Su-mi looks all over the house for her sister and then discovers bloody stains on the floor...
A Tale Of Two Sisters is a Korean suspense drama which I saw a lot of talk about on the Bullets N Babes forum. Once I found out that it was reputed to be a spine-tingly scary film, I decided not to read another post on it, as I didn't want anything to be ruined. Alas, it took me a number of months before I got round to actually buying the film, so I missed out on the initial euphoria and being caught up in the buzz. That did not serve to lesson the experience when I finally got round to watching it though. In fact it may have even helped as the 'buzz' had died down a little, so any preconceptions had also decreased. For me A Tale Of Two Sisters was a truly unique experience, as it became the first film that I can ever remember watching for a second time within an hour or so of the first. It engrossed and captivated me that much that I just had to see it again to better understand it.
"...to better undestand it." Everyone who watches this film wants to improve in that area. A Tale Of Two Sisters is a very confusing film, a bit of a mind-f*@k to quote a phrase, but at no point does this work against the film. Everything about the film sucks you in, and keeps you completely captivated from start to finish, and once it has finished it subconsciously begs you to watch it again. Watch it again so that you can see one of the important details which you missed first time round, so you can marvel again at the intelligence of the script and story, so you can stare in wonder at the incredible cinematography or so you can simply be involved in the story and emotion again. A Tale Of Two Sisters is a film which you absolutely have to see more than once.
Can you tell that I liked the film yet?! Well I did, very much so. This is one of those films which is very much story driven, and as such I am only going to give the briefest of plot summaries, as I wouldn't want to lesson or ruin the experience in any way. In fact I'm just going to quote the synopsis from the back of the DVD. Two sisters, Su-mi (Im Su-Jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-Yeong), come home after recovering from a long illness. Their new stepmother Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-A) welcomes them, but Su-mi, the elder sister, intentionally avoids her while Su-yeon is quite scared of her weird stepmother. After their first dinner back home, Su-mi and Su-yeon go to bed in their dark and dismal rooms. One day, Mu-hyun (the girls' father) goes into town and Su-mi can't find her sister Su-yeon anywhere. Feeling petrified, Su-mi looks all over the house for her sister and then discovers bloody stains on the floor...
In all honesty, films of the quality of A Tale Of Two Sisters are very much in the minority. Even other films that are very good entertainment and ones that I would gladly give 4+ out of 5 for, quite often don't have a lasting impact. They were excellent entertainment, which is one of the most important factors for films in my opinion, but they didn't have much beyond that. Films like A Tale Of Two Sisters, though, do leave a significant impression. They leave you thinking about the film, its intricacies, all the clever details, your interpretation of events that took place and about the overall experience that was watching the film.
To highlight one the many excellent aspects to the film, I'm going to comment on the cinematography that is on display. If you have read many of my reviews, then you'll know that this isn't an aspect of films that I bring up much when writing reviews. The reason for this is that I don't normally notice, or rather, I don't really appreciate the cinematography in most films, unless it is really something special. The only other film which I can recall discussing/noticing it in was Zhang Yimou's Hero. It was one of the most aesthetically beautiful films I have ever seen. For me A Tale Of Two Sisters is right up there in that standard, although the look of the film is totally different. Just about every single scene is made to have immense amount of atmosphere, which would not have been possible if it wasn't for the camera angles and lighting being pretty much right every time. In the highly suspenseful and scary scenes, you see just enough to maximise the effect without over doing it. I certainly have not been so scared while watching a film for quite a long time. Credit must also be given to the artistic design people, or whatever you call the people responsible for creating the sets. Depending on the lighting, the same set can successfully look calm and comforting or eerie and quite freaky.
Another aspect of most films which I don't mention too much in my reviews is the film's music score, again mostly because I don't generally have much appreciation for that sort of thing, and only really notice its effect when it is really good, like in this film! This is a film that is made for a 5.1 audio set-up. Having various sound effects and screeching musical instruments (where appropriate) coming at you from all directions not only immerses you right into the film's soundstage, but it also scares the sh!t out of you! In the musical score there are a lot of your usually instruments, piano, violin etc., the sort of things you'd normally expect. To contrast on this, at times there are also some very digital sounding effects, kind of like some sounds which were made by old video games consoles. There is one scene (which was very scary) where I noticed this in particular. Despite striking me as an unusual sound effect/musical score segment to be hearing; what surprised me more was that it worked! It made the scene more frantic, my heart pound faster, and added to the originality of the effect.
A Tale Of Two Sisters, admittedly, does start very slowly and in lesser films this would prove to disrupt the film's pace, or simply bore the viewer. I am the first to admit that I have a short attention span, the writing of this review has taken four sittings so far, but remarkably I was not bored in the slightest; I was extremely curious and intrigued. The reason for this is that at that at the very start of the film we see Su-mi in a hospital being asked questions, but with no answers. No indication is given as to what this is about. Then we see what looks like a normal family returning home, and everything appears perfectly calm and normal. But when Eun-joo enters the frame, despite being very cheery and happy looking, something just doesn't feel right. There is no explanation as to what this niggle is, but something comes across as being really rather strange, and through natural curiosity I found I was completely sucked in to the film.
Credit for this has to go to the excellent performances from all four main cast members. In my opinion, there is less to fault in the acting between all four of them than there usually is for the main lead in most other films. Believe me, these people can act, especially the three women. The smallest role of the four belongs to the father (Kim Gab-Su). Kim Gab-Su puts across a man very much in emotional pain. He appears to always have a lot on his mind, and is distant to family. I can't really give much explanation for his emotions or how the viewer comes to understand why he acts the way he does without potentially giving away major parts of the story, so I'll have to leave him at that. Next is the younger sister Su-yeon, acted by Mun Geun-Yeong. She comes across as the weaker of the two sisters. She's frightened of her stepmother, and convincingly so. The fear in her eyes looks as real as you could hope to see, the comfort in her manner when she is close to her sister is highly believable and the despair and sorrow are equally real.
Despite giving an excellent performance, she is still upstaged by the remaining two. Trying to say one of Yeom Jeong-A or Im Su-Jeong acts better than the other is a foolish task as for me they were both absolutely outstanding. Yeom Jeong-A plays the stepmother Eun-joo. Her character really is quite fascinating, as she changes significantly from start to finish. When we first see her she is cheerily greeting the sisters on their return, but the way she is and the way she delivers her speech is just a fraction off normal to make it easy to see that there is something in the atmosphere not quite right. As the film progresses and we see other sides of her character, we see her to be quite an eerie woman. Maybe the fact that her hair very frequently covers her right eye adds to the eeriness of her character, but she is brilliantly portrayed as being not quite the way she seems. The fear and ferocity also are made to seem real by Yeom Jeong-A, and despite her thin stature she can come across as a menacing woman.
The main character in the film is Su-mi, played by Im Su-Jeong. She is a little older than she is portrayed to be in the film, but for a young woman she leads the film superbly. Her character is given the opportunity to have far more emotional range than the others, and in every case I thought the performance was flawless. The scenes where she is in bed and gets a scare and where she is trying to untie the knot into the sack, I was very impressed at how natural and real the way she moved and acted came across. The terror, anxiety, fear was not only in her actions but very much in her eyes as well. Her character is the stronger of the two sisters, and promises to always protect her younger sister. This strength in character is very apparent when she is talking to her stepmother as you can practically feel the tension between them oozing out of your TV screen. I'll have doubts as to whether Im Su-Jeong could ever top this performance, or even come close to the level she reaches here. Hopefully I'll see more of her films sometime to find out, as she has certainly got herself a standard to live up to now!
The last 'character' that I want to mention is the house itself. This house has character in abundance. Its design from the outside has possibly the most stereotypical aspect to the whole film. It does look a bit like a typical horror movie house. The wood is dark and broody, and the hallways look very creepy with what little light there is not having much of an effect on the dark wood. Most of the bedrooms appeared to have floral patterned wallpaper or something to that effect. Beforehand, I was under the impression that that sort of wallpaper was typical family type wallpaper and was meant to instil warmth and so on in a house. Not here. Maybe because there is just that creepy eerie sense about everywhere in the house that the familyness of the wallpaper just feels very much out of place. Things look different in the kitchen, where there is the colours are bolder making the place look much more vibrant and contrastingly bright. This contrast in styles of the different areas of the house just builds on the atmosphere, and adds to the feeling that 'something isn't quite right'.
When people think of Asian suspense/horror films Ring (aka Ringu) is probably the most famous of them all, and Dark Water and The Eye are two other names which are likely to get a mention quickly. While each has its own original aspect to it, most use the classic 'black hair covering the face' person at some point, and generally are accused of trying to copy the success of Ring. While A Tale Of Two Sisters also has the black hair person in one scene, for all the Asian horror films I've seen it is still probably the most original after Ring, and is a serious attempt from South Korea at creating something to equal the classics. No doubt a Hollywood remake will be made at some point soon, but I can only hope that this film gets the credit and exposure it deserves, and over the years when people think of the great Asian suspense/horror films the name A Tale Of Two Sisters is mentioned up near the top. I think it has earned that right.
Audio & Subtitles
As A Tale Of Two Sisters comes with both a Korean DTS and DD5.1 track, I watched the film with one of the tracks on my first viewing, and the other on my second viewing. I can't recall hearing any major differences at all between the two tracks. Granted a direct comparison wasn't made, but I watched the film for the second time within an hour or so of finishing my first viewing, so my memory was still reasonably fresh. With that in mind, all comments made about the audio tracks are presumed applicable to both.
First off I have to state that A Tale Of Two Sisters has a brilliant 5.1 soundtrack. Each speaker has its fair share of discrete sound effects and, when the occasion demands it, speech to handle. Hearing doors creak open, running footsteps and other eerie noises coming from behind you really absorbs you into the atmosphere of the film. While the film itself contains more than enough moments to make you get goosebumps all over, the addition of the sound makes it all the more scary. They help make the film's atmosphere what it is, and help remind you why you bought a 5.1 audio system in the first place. Soundtracks like this make them completely worthwhile. Every sound effect is clear and crisp; even quiet effects like two surfaces rubbing together (glasses sliding on tables etc), the rustling of leaves, creaks of floorboards, all have life and depth to them. I really can't fault the sound at all.
And we're doubly blessed with the subtitles. I didn't notice a single spelling or grammar error in the entire film. Not knowing even the slightest bit of Korean meant that I have absolutely no idea how literal the subtitles are, but given the general quality of the whole DVD package, I am going to have faith and assuming that they are a faithful reproduction of what is spoken. This Hong Kong release has a slight edge over the Korean release (from what I am aware) in that the one instance of written Korean is subtitled here, whereas it was not in the Korean release. Flawless audio and subtitles! Not often I get to say that!
A Tale Of Two Sisters is a very recent Korean film, and as such I would not expect there to be any problems with the film print. Even had the print only been made a letterbox transfer for this DVD release, I would have expected good sharp detail, like in the case of the Hong Kong release of Joint Security Area. Happily, this release of A Tale Of Two Sisters does not have a letterboxed transfer, it is anamorphic widescreen. For me, the transfer is right up there with the standards of the audio and subtitles. In other words I think it is excellent. Colours are fantastically reproduced, being incredibly vibrant and full of depth and life. Detail levels are as high as I think you can really expect, which can be clearly seen in one of the early scenes where Su-Yeon is eating the fruit from the little tree. You can see detail in her hair, in the small branches and in the flower/fruit of the tree. I didn't notice a single speckle or blemish to the film print in either of the two viewings. That does not mean there are none, as the film is highly engrossing and it is more than possible that I was too captivated by the film to register a quick speckle. I am confident in saying there aren't many dirt effects at all. Definitely one of the better-looking DVDs I've seen in a while.
DVD & Extras
Sadly, for those that like their extras, this is a bare-bones release from Panorama. None of the extras that are on the Korean release are found here. It would have been nice to have the deleted scenes, as they help explain the film a bit more (too much in some cases, which is why they were deleted!), but there is nothing here. Given the quality of the audio and picture, I am happy to forgive the lack of extras as I'm assuming both will have been encoded at a rather high rate and extras will have taken up space that could have compromised that quality.
What can I say to some up? If you like to be scared, if you like to be curious at on goings in a film, if you like to be entertained, if you like to think about a film rather than being spoon fed everything, then this most certainly is the film for you. Make no mistake, this is a very confusing film, but it is worth it. There is practically nothing but the highest quality in all areas, with the exception of the DVD extras. 2004 has only really just started, and this is my film of the year. I doubt any other film will top it.
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