Electra-fying a spooky mansion is at the heart of latest Korean gothic on a family’s collapse
The holiday season returns many of us to our families, the original scene of so many of civilization’s horrors. Kim Ji-woon’s “A Tale of Two Sisters,” following on last month’s Korean cinema survey at the Walter Reade Theater, makes for especially thrilling seasonal fare.
A breakaway hit in Korea, whose commercial success Dreamworks hopes to replicate stateside, Kim’s film renovates a well-known Korean folktale in disarmingly chic fashion. The eponymous teen sisters—terse, petulant Su-mi (Lim Soo-jeong) and lachrymose, reticent Su-yeon (Mun Geun-yeong)—return after a prolonged absence to the family’s countryside manse, all floral-patterned wallpaper and burnished ebony woodwork, surely the most luxe Old Dark House ever to grace a scary movie. A few taps or scratches in the night would be gladly tolerable for a weekend reservation in such digs.
Emotionally numb and otherwise out to lunch, their father (Kim Kap-su) allows the girls to form a self-protective bond against their stepmother Eun-joo (Yum Jeong-ah), a sleek, aggressively manic Medusa on a mysterious medication who stalks the gloomy corridors. Su-mi and Eun-joo’s immediately evident mutual loathing is the film’s mainspring, but the waifs-in-jeopardy archetype is neatly upended, and soon it’s altogether unclear who’s antagonizing whom, and which of these characters is in fact the looniest. Perceptive horror fans won’t have trouble deducing what’s wrong with these sorry sisters before the device-baring climax, but Kim invests the narrative with enough psychological ambiguity to keep viewers absorbed.
Perhaps inspired by the villa’s built-in greenhouse, the bravura Yum plays the cruel stepmom in full-tilt hysteric mode, as if channeling Kate Hepburn in “Suddenly, Last Summer.” Initially, she seems poised to pocket the film, but ingénue Lim adds impressive shading to Su-mi. Hilariously surly at first—sweeping a tea service off the kitchen table just as Eun-joo begins to pour, a flourish some will be tempted to try at home—she matches Yum, histrionic scream for scream, and ultimately grows both fearsome and pitiful. When Dad unwisely steps out one afternoon, Eun-joo growls to Su-mi (not without justification), “I’m sick and tired of your family,” and they take the gloves off for a spirited tussle, employing scissors and even garden statuary.
Characters are strikingly conveyed through costume—Eun-joo’s silk, gunmetal blouses and champagne slips perfectly suit her icy demeanor, while Dad’s depressive inwardness is cloaked in drab button-down work shirts. During a third-act revelatory flashback, Eun-joo’s chunky black turtleneck becomes a shifting signifier, going from defensive cocoon to hardened battle armor, while Su-mi’s stunning ensemble of feather-collared mustard cardigan over salmon knee-length skirt nearly upstages the essential plot exposition.
Yet the film’s finest virtue is Lee Mo-gae’s never less-than-gorgeous cinematography, recessed with menacing shadows and conveying a subtly clammy pallor on the actors while gliding around the mansion like it was the Overlook Hotel. Kim’s impeccably mounted production doesn’t always serve the needs of his story, however. The sedulous elegance dilutes the visceral dose of fear we crave and expect from horror films, and “Tale” is finally as terrifying as finding oneself locked overnight in the Chloé boutique on Madison Avenue.
Instead, Kim locates a more complex unease in the transference of guilt between Su-mi and Eun-joo, flowing from the repressed Precipitating Incident. (“We agreed not to talk about that closet!”) This corrosive guilt is what binds this family together as well as what sets them violently in opposition, dueling—wouldn’t you know it?—over Dad. An early confrontation has them literally quarreling over his recumbent form (“Dad’s sleeping,” Eun-joo counter-intuitively barks. “Why are you trying to wake him?”); later they spar over who gets to launder his no-doubt blissful boxers.
As so often in K-horror, “Tale”’s path of fear runs through the fraught terrain of female sexuality. The ghost of the girls’ birth mother first appears with a dark trickle of menstrual blood seeping down one leg, followed by an uncanny third hand; Su-mi jolts awake to find her period has started, simultaneous with Eun-joo’s. Manifested in quasi-incestuous combat, their sexuality may disrupt the established patriarchal boundaries, but it turns out that all these women, right down to the girls’ departed mother, are really just dying to be Daddy’s favorite.