A TALE OF TWO SISTERSR
With the success of The Ring and The Grudge, Hollywood has declared open season on remakes of Asian horror films. Next year alone sees the release of The Ring 2 as well as Walter Salles' adaptation of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. (Don't be surprised to read about a Grudge follow-up being rushed into production as well.) The studios are so high on acquiring overseas titles they've even started looking beyond Japan. Recently, DreamWorks purchased the remake rights to the South Korean horror hit A Tale of Two Sisters, which is now receiving a limited domestic release. Written and directed by Kim Jee-woon, the film is essentially the Korean answer to the popular Japanese horror franchise Ju-On. Like those fright-fests, this is a haunted-house story that emphasizes chills over gore. But where the Ju-On films are made up of a series of short stories, A Tale of Two Sisters is a full-fledged family melodrama, complete with a wicked stepmother and the two young sisters she menaces. To put it in Hollywood-speak, it's Flowers in the Attic (minus the incest) meets The Haunting.
The movie begins with the two girls, Su-mi (Im Su-yeong) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-yeong) returning to their lakefront home after recovering from an unspecified illness. They are greeted by their indifferent father (Mu-hyun) and his new wife Eun-joo (Yeom Jeong-ah), who doesn't have the firmest grasp on reality. The sisters attempt to settle back into their lives, but from the moment they enter the house, something seems off. Perhaps it's the creepy floral wallpaper or the disturbing noises that reverberate through the hallways in the dead of night-either way, home is no longer a welcoming environment. Even Eun-joo begins to see things that may or may not be there, including a reanimated corpse skulking around underneath the kitchen sink.
Kim doles out the family's backstory in little bursts. It seems that the girls' beloved mother died under mysterious circumstances and that incident may be the cause of their illness. It's also implied that Eun-joo was something of a homewrecker, which further feeds into her stepdaughters' suspicions. Just when you think you've figured out where the story is going, though, Kim throws in a terrific twist that catches you completely off-guard. Unfortunately, he follows that haymaker with a flurry of other surprises, visions and red herrings, most of which miss the mark. As fantasy and reality bleed closer together, it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle (or care about) the central mystery. By the time we reach the end of the film and learn what "really" happened, the audience is almost too exhausted for it to have much resonance.
Despite its third-act problems, A Tale of Two Sisters easily passes the scare test. There are some sequences here (like the aforementioned kitchen-sink encounter) that even had the jaded crowd at the press screening on the edge of their seats. Like Ju-On director Takashi Shimizu, Kim proves himself adept at locating the horror in the ordinary. The house, which seems so cozy-if a little rustic-at first, soon turns claustrophobic and alien. (It's clear that the filmmaker is a big fan of Roman Polanski's Repulsion.) There's a terrific scene early on in the film where one of the girls huddles underneath her blanket, trying to hide from the monster she thinks has entered her room. It's like every nightmare you ever had as a kid-only in this case it just might be real.