A Tale of Two Sisters … (Korea, 2003) – Film Review

Film Review: A Tale of Two Sisters
Korea, 2003.

My Summary: Nothing is as terrifying as a guilty conscience.

Sadly touted as a “horror” film, this dramatic presentation
concerning the turmoil of a human mind
is a superb mystery story that requires the viewer to observe
… and think.

Overview: This is a dramatic film for thoughtful, observant, mature viewers only.
Those who are impatient, inattentive, or require guns, explosions,
or comic book nonsense, will surely, sadly, see it as little more
than a ‘slow-paced’, confusing “ghost story”.

One crucial “reveal” is made about half-way through the film;
while the mystery is fully revealed in the conclusion.

A second viewing is absolutely essential in order to
fully appreciate ( after a good bit of thoughtful reflection )
the events that have just been seen.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a complex drama that absolutely requires the viewer
to discern minutiae … and discern past the mere superficial appearance.

There ARE clues ( with the arrival of the central character at the house )
– that all is NOT as it seems.

This is a film for those who value the mental challenge
of discerning the finer points of a story.

And for those very few who are possessed of a moral conscience,
it is a film with which they can relate.

The Characters:

Moo-hyeon (Father)

Eun-joo (Stepmother)

Su-mi (Older Sister)

Su-yeon (Younger Sister)

Additionally …

The Girls’ Mother ( Who had died previously )

The Mother’s Brother ( Dinner guest )

The Mother’s Brother’s Wife ( Dinner guest )

The Reveal.

Do NOT

read past this point

IF you wish to see the film … !!!

… Stop Here.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a superb study of a conscientious human mind
ridden with guilt and remorse

that results from a moment of neglect

caused by bad temper and pride.

The key to the entire film – its ‘twists’ and convolutions,

are found in the opening frames of the film …

THE REVEAL …

The Answer to the mystery of this story

is found in the fact that …

There are only TWO people in the car
that arrives at the house:

which means that

there are only TWO people in the house:

Su-mi and her Father.

Discerning Events …

The Story Revealed [ at about the 2 hour 5 minute mark ] …

The Mother of the two girls (probably assuming an ‘affair’ between her husband
and the nurse) sought isolation in the wardrobe, where she over-dosed on pills;
and then secured herself to the clothes rail by the neck, to be hanged.

The pills would have made her unconscious, after which,
the added ligature would ensure that she strangled.

As the younger daughter walked into the room, the wardrobe door opened slightly
as the body would lose all muscle tension.

The girl looked in, saw her mother, and pulled on her in despair and panic.

The pulling on the body then tipped the wardrobe on top of the young girl.

The father heard the crash;
the brother and his wife heard the crash …
but did NOT bother to see what had caused the noise.

The nurse (stepmother) heard the crash and went upstairs
and into the younger sisters’ room.

There, she saw that the little girl was trapped
and possibly in danger of dying.

Wanting to be rid of the annoying child, she left the room …
made it to the top of the stairs — BUT — decided
that she could not let the girl die.

Turning to go back, the older sister stepped from her bedroom
and spoke belligerently to the nurse –

“Why did you come up here (upstairs)?  Dad is not here.”

The girl then tells her to ‘Stay out of our lives’.

The nurse – fed up with the belligerence, tells the older girl
that there will come a time when she will regret saying that to her.

“What can be worse” the girl cruelly responds, “than being here with you?”

The older sister storms away in a bad temper.

The nurse – deciding to do just that and ‘Stay out of the little girl’s life’
( what is left of it ) – leaves the younger sister alone
to die in the toppled wardrobe.

Su-mi, (the older sister) now outside, pauses – looks back to the house –
‘feeling’ that something is wrong; and then continues to walk away.

Subsequently overcome with guilt and grief, the older sister
is sent by her father, for treatment in a mental hospital.

Upon Reflection …

From the episodes of the dual ‘diary incident’ and multiple dresses in the wardrobe,
I believe that the viewer is to understand that the events portrayed in the film,
are repeat events in Sumi’s mind:

[ She had been sent home, imagined the incidents (in this film)
and been returned to the hospital before … but does not remember doing so. ]

In the pre-dinner scene, where he has just finished shaving,
the father tells his older daughter to stop this or she will be sick “again”.

Unable to escape the guilt she feels over not going to investigate
the loud crash in her sister’s room; and realising that
her bad temper towards the nurse is what prevented her from so doing,

the older sister is haunted by guilt over what she perceives to be ‘her fault’.

Subsequently, Su-mi creates situations in which she “is there”
to help and comfort her little sister.

REMEMBER:

At the beginning of the story, the father is on the telephone
suggesting that someone [ the nurse / his new wife ] NOT come over just yet.
It is, he tells her, too soon.

When, towards the end of the film, the nurse / stepmother arrives (for real),
THAT is her first time being (truly) in the house;

which means that Su-mi can no longer fantasize, but must accept the truth.

Considering the DETAIL

Changing the Clock

This (I believe) shows that Su-mi is in control of events (in her mind:
‘I am in control now, sister; there is no need to worry about anything’).

The Sound of Running Footsteps

… Su-mi’s imagination creating the sound of her own running footfalls
as she rushes – (or, should have rushed on That Day) – to her sister’s aid;
and which will forever resonate in Su-mi’s guilt-ridden mind.

The Bedroom

The ‘woman’ was the girls’ mother. Su-mi is shown positioned between her legs
as a trickle of blood emanates (representing birth).

Whilst I cannot claim any knowledge of Korea, I do know that in Japan
the ghosts of ancestors are indeed a very real concept to traditionally-minded people.
It may be [?] that the film-maker intends this to be an actual ghost,
rather than just a dream in Su-mi’s mind …

If the apparition is a product of Sumi’s mind, then, presumably it is her own
guilty conscience at work once again – “you (Sumi tells herself) are responsible
for the death of your sister, my other child”.

The Refrigerator Scene

The opening scene to this film has a doctor washing his hands:
the symbolism is of Pilate condemning Christ: signifying that the topic of the film
is Guilt – ‘washing one’s hands of the whole thing’.

Here, the reference to ‘blood on my hands’ is seen in the fact that,
in unwrapping the meat, and spilling it,
Su-mi has ‘blood on her hands’ that needs to be washed away.

The reference to blood is continued in the menstrual scene of her little sister
– although Su-mi is ‘there for her’ at this crucial time of her sister’s (fantasy) life.

At the Dinner Table

Su-mi is acting as if she was her Mother – who was the sister
of the man invited for dinner. She seems to have been narrating ‘old time memories’
that never happened, and so, greatly annoyed the brother of the dead woman.

The man’s wife states that she definitely SAW “a girl”
in the cramped space underneath the sink.

The ‘cramped girl’ was wearing a green dress, the same dress that is seen
in the wardrobe on the day of the accident.

The woman had been in the house when the wardrobe toppled;

her husband had been outside with the father, at the car.

The woman – like everyone EXCEPT the nurse, could not be bothered to investigate;
thus, she is partly responsible and her own guilt preys upon her.
(Recall that, in the car, she did not want to go back to the house;
her husband more or less insisted out of politeness to the father.)

As the scene under the sink was definitely NOT a product of Su-mi’ guilty-ridden mind
(Su-mi’s imagination would Not affect the mind of the woman),

I believe that the ‘sight’ of the girl under the sink
is a product of the woman’s memory of That Day,
brought about by her (very) reluctant return to that house.

Running in the woods

Surely, this is Su-mi’s dream in which her little sister is running to save their mother (?)
Su-mi is trying to tell her to stop, knowing that finding the mother
will result in Su-yeon’s own death in the wardrobe.

Bruised Arms

As the two sisters begin to relax – enjoying the ease of whistling on the porch,
Su-mi must keep provide some new danger: an occasion to ‘be there’
to defend her little sister.

Keeps locking her in the wardrobe

The ‘danger’ must always elevate, giving Su-mi
new opportunities to ‘be there’ for her sister.
The nurse ‘keeps’ locking the younger sister in the wardrobe because Su-mi
keeps replaying these events over and over in her mind (as in the opening diary scene).

The Bag

Su-mi, having been told by her father, that her sister is dead,
and so, can no longer create a happy little sister for whom she can constantly care.
She now must accept that her sister is in grievous peril – yet still in a situation
in which her big sister can rescue her.

The Smile of Resignation

With guilt overwhelming her, Su-mi envisions the stepmother
as being moments away from killing her.

Bad tempered anger at the stepmother was the reason that
Su-mi did not check on her sister. Death by the nurse / stepmother
will suitably end the constant misery that she is suffering.

Note: It is at This point that the father arrives …
with the (actual) step-mother (now truly) present.

Screaming Su-yeon

Su-mi here accepts that her sister truly is dead.

Su-mi can no longer fantasize and must (again) accept the reality and (presumably)
a new ‘round of guilt-ridden fantasies where she ‘arrives’ at the house,
takes her diary from the hospital suitcase, sees one already there;
sees another identical dress added to the wardrobe &c. &c. …

She will perpetually be “haunted” by guilt.

The Ghost and the Stepmother

Realising that the step-mother has ‘gotten away with it’,
and that she is in the psychiatric hospital, Su-mi is left
to fantasize revenge upon the stepmother, at the hands of her real (ghost) mother.

The film ends with Su-mi still plagued by guilt over her own bad temper and petulance,
which led her to walk away while her sister lay dying.

Conclusion

For those who possess the workings of an active Conscience in their own lives,
this is a film that will resonate with all who, like me,
possess a tender conscience – and recognise it when depicted in others.

P Livingstone