Tale of Two Sisters, A

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 09/04/04 00:24:10

"I don't understand it, but I know it scared the living crap out of me."
5 stars (Awesome)

What is it with the far East and their ever-increasing brand of horror films? Over the last few years, the best horrors have all tended to come from those shores and have generally beat the socks of anything Hollywood has to offer. They all have a running theme too, of managing to make the everyday scary. 'Ringu' made videotapes scary, 'Phone' made er, phones scary, 'The Eye' found horrors in lifts, and 'Audition' put everyone off blind dates for life. What are they going to fill with horror next? Pencils? Cellotape? 'A Tale of Two Sisters' is different however in that it's much more traditional - it's a haunted house story. But this is the scariest haunted house since Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall checked into the Overlook.

Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun-Young are the titular sisters who have moved back in with their Da in their country house after some unspecified break. Except it's not just those three. There's also Dad's new (much younger) wife and their stepmother (Yeomg Jeong-Ah). It's instantly clear that this is your typical stepmother/stepdaughter relationship - distrust and barely contained loathing on both sides. But there's not just the four of them either. There seems to be a presence in the house, manifesting itself either as a broken backed woman or a long haired little girl. Quite who it is or what its intentions are unclear, but what is clear is one thing - it's bloody terrifying.

I can't recall the last time I saw a horror film where the entire audience jumped at the same time. Most of the time the more intelligent audience member can see the jumps coming but here, director Kim Ji-Woon times them beautifully, catching you off-guard and sending you up the walls. Ji-Woon also has the uncanny knack of knowing exactly how long to draw out a sequence and how to get the maximum suspense out of the scenes. A simple scene of the stepmother investigating a noisy sink will shred your nerves several times before letting you go for instance. I could hear the audience all letting out a collective breath several times throughout the film.

So yeah we're talking scary. And not 'Boo!' scary. We're talking pushing you back in your chair, scared to look at the screen scary. Towards the end I was looking at my watch saying "Please let it end, I can't take any more". And not in a 'Van Helsing' way, in a 'my nerves literally can't take any more' way. A bedroom encounter with a ghost plays like the girl crawling out of the tv in 'Ringu' but amped up to 11. Yeah, it's that scary. It looks great too, full of colour but the house has almost a life of its own with the seemingly ordinary made to look terrifying.

The set-up of two distrustful children and their unfriendly stepmother will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a British horror film, 'The Innocents'. But the clever thing here is, we're never sure who to believe and who's the villain. Is it the children trying to drive the stepmother crazy or is it the other way round? It cleverly see-saws between the two so you're never sure who to trust, particularly with the good acting here. This sense of unease simply intensifies the fear as you're sure no-one's safe from the ghost.

So why is there an eventual lack of understanding about what eventually happens? The ending tries to explain everything away in flashbacks, but there's so much going back-and-forth that it all becomes muddled and ends with not the big scare that it perhaps should, but with more of a wink to the audience that says, yes it doesn't make much sense, but damn didn't we scare you anyway?

'The Exorcist'. 'The Omen'. 'The Shining'. 'The Blair Witch Project'. 'Hallowe'en'. 'Ringu'. 'Night of the Living Dead'. All classics and all soul-shakingly terrifying. 'A Tale of Two Sisters' deserves to be mentioned in the same breath and you should see it now before Hollywood remakes it with Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff.

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