A Tale of Two Sisters Review
After spending time at a mental hospital where they were taken shortly after the death of their mother, Su-mi and Su-yeon return home to their father where they are greeted by their new step-mother. No sooner have they returned to the house when strange things begin to happen. Soon many questions are brought into play: Are the sisters mentally unstable? Is their auntie causing more trouble then they realise? Or is the house possessed? All will be revealed in time - and I mean a lot of time.
Since viewing The Quiet Family, a film which stands as one of my favourite Korean comedies (one with a dark lacing) next to his second film, The Foul King Kim Ji-wun grabbed my attention as being a director to look out for in future. Following on from the aforementioned film he went on to dabble further within the horror genre and directed the short film, Memories as part of an anthology known as Three. In 2003 he made one of the most talked about horror films of recent times, with A Tale of Two Sisters. Compared largely to Hideo Nakata's Ring, Kim Ji-wun puts enough of his own unique style that comprises surreal writing and imagery to convey an overall sense of morbidity, depression, horror and drama and it is subsequently a film that is hard to pin down in words.
A Tale of Two Sisters has quickly become a huge favourite, much like Donnie Darko fans have talked about the movie from the beginning, broken it down and come up with their own interpretations and who could blame them? Kim Ji-wun doesn't make things too clear the first time round and this is why in order to understand the film you must watch it again and pick up on the nuances and clues littered throughout. The real dilemma when watching is caused by each character's own quirkiness and inner turmoil that has the viewer constantly guessing as to what may have happened in the events before those we are witnessing in the present.
Thankfully the film does stand up to repeat viewings and doesn't prove to be as frustrating as one might imagine. Solving A Tale of Two Sisters requires the viewer to pick up on the small, seemingly obscure things rather than the bigger shocks that are designed to be unsettling and off putting.
Kim Ji-wun won't deny that his influences come heavy and if you were to compare the film's structure and pacing then its success stems from predominantly Asian cinema, taking a few cues here and there from other established productions but when looking beyond the complex characters and moments of brief terror there is also a very Western influential style to his setting in the form of the house that dominates the film. From Les Yeux sans Visage to Psycho and The Shining we have multiple long shots from within (in this instance) the disgusting interior with its hideous wallpaper and dark browns and reds that permeate the structure. The film's palette is about as ugly as you can hope to see in a horror film and yet production designer, Cho Keun-hyun has created a thing of disturbing beauty, lifted by Oh Seung-chul's careful lighting. It's a harmonious establishment all together and one of the aspects which stands out the most.
Helped by marvellous performances all round A Tale of Two Sisters guarantees a lasting ability to entertain, if not scare those of you a little more easily affected by your horror flicks. While it does have a lot going for it in terms of dramatic tension, working better on a psychological level its actual moments of inspired scare mongering, although designed well with Lee Byeing-woo's score in mind fall just a little short of delivering a complete kick in the face. Personally I feel that Kim Ji-wun bettered himself with Memories which was just as surreal and tragic, working so well as a short film, whereas A Tale of Two Sisters seems to drag in just a few areas but seems to be no less compelling for it.
Tartan have really outdone themselves with this release, offering not only a fine presentation but a wealth of superb extras that can finally be enjoyed for those of us disappointed by the lack of subtitles on the Asian releases.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio the film looks generally good despite a little softness. I've opted to compare this however to the Korean R3 release as I was left somewhat curious by Tartan's use of colour here. The R2 release shows quite a bit of difference in terms of tinting that I can't say I prefer over the Korean release. This simply comes down to personal preference, some may find it is an improvement but it looks like tampering. As such I have provided several screen captures to compare both releases. The Korean Metro release is also noticeably sharper though not by any great deal. Both releases have their share of edge enhancement as well. Contrast wise Tartan wins out, whereas the Metro disc clearly shows better defined colours.
For these comparisons you see the Tartan R2 on top, and the Metro R3 below…
Tartan provide a Korean 5.1 Dolby Digital track and a Korean DTS surround track. I chose to go with the latter for my viewing pleasure and I'm happy to say that it's excellent. A Tale of Two Sisters makes much use of surround sound effects when it needs to, so to have them utilized fully with the inclusion of DTS is a great bonus. The horror also works a lot better if you have a home set up to appreciate the haunting music and special effects that make up the creepy atmosphere of an ever present danger. Each speaker sets off a various spatial effect and when inside the house there are many subtle moments to pick out, making it feel as though the house is really alive. But if you're really going to get the most out of this track then you need to watch the film late and turn it up.
There are optional subtitles in English which read very well and are of a decent size.
The large majority of the bonus features are in Korean and come fully subtitled for your viewing pleasure. On disc one we find:
Audio Commentary with Kim Ji-Wun, Moon Geun-young and Im Soo-jung
This is a must listen, especially if you hope to understand a lot more about the film. The director and his two young lead actresses get into a lot of discussion that covers several areas of the production, giving away clues and answering many questions that we all had about the end result. Some fans may have preferred to keep the film as an interpretive piece and as such may not want it spelled out for them, but I'm sure there are folk out there who are still confused about what this film all means and will find this track offers much in the way of clarification.
Audio Commentary with director Kim Ji-wun, Cinematographer Lee Mo-gae and lighting director, Oh Seung-chul
This is a very interesting commentary that thankfully stays focused on the importance of the subject. While a couple of laughs are to be had the track generally sticks to a technical level, offering plenty of insight as to how the lighting and art design were used together as a perfect demonstration, used against each character's personality, emotional content or the intensity of a particular scene. For technical aficionados this track provides some good lessons, not to mention much more of an understanding of what the director and his team were trying to bring across on a deeper level.
Exclusive UK Interview with Kim Ji-wun, by Billy Chainsaw
Kim Ji-wun is joined by his interpreter and gives us almost 30-minutes of his time as he discusses his career and direction in film making. We learn some interesting things about his life and his work on this production. Those who require subtitles due to hard of hearing will be disappointed as there are none here, due to the interpreter speaking English. Still, I feel it should be subtitled.
Original Theatrical Trailer
This runs for almost 2-minutes and includes forced subtitles. The trailer has been well put together, giving nothing away in terms of the story, relying more on quick-cut shots instead which gives a feeling of tension.
Hidden Feature: A Letter from Su-yeon
In the set-up menu press right on the remote control to access a 4-minute piece with Moon Geun-young in character as she remembers her sister.
Moving onto disc two we have:
Creating "A Tale of Two Sisters"
Behind the Scenes
Running for almost 24 minutes we see various footage that ranges from draft read thoughs to the shooting of several scenes. Also included are words from Kim Ji-wun and brief interviews with some of the cast members. This feature also looks at storyboards, set designs and make-up effects. It makes for interesting viewing with some particularly compelling moments as we see the filming behind some of the more unsettling scenes.
Production Design Featurette
At 12 minutes in length we're given an insight into Geun Hyun-jo's art design, from the man himself. Geun talks about his gothic influence before explaining the reasons behind certain colours used in the film and the overall part that sets play.
Music Score Featurette
This runs for just 6 minutes but in that time music director, Byoung Woo-lee discusses how he succeeded at merging the film's sound effects with his score. He goes on to explain that there were a couple of problems during production but it all came good in the end.
CGI Documentary Feature
In another short piece running for 6 minutes digital technician, Uk Kim and Art Director, Song Jung-min who work at "Digital Tetra" talk about their experience on the film and how they came about designing CGI footage that didn't look like CGI footage. The most striking part of this is the facial scanning that was used, that never shows up as being obvious on screen and after all this the modest duo say their job was still easy - all the more credit to them.
Creating the Poster Featurette
This runs for 6 minutes and takes us behind the scenes of the poster production, which should be all too familiar to most horror fans out there by now. Photographer, Hyoung Geun-o talks us through the initial concept stage and final shooting process where we see some good footage of the actors' getting made up and occasionally having a giggle.
Deleted Scenes with Director’s Commentary
This is an interesting collection of scenes, running for almost 28 minutes, mainly because what we see here act as big clues but Kim Ji-wun wanted the film to come across as a little more obscure, hence its trimming down. While some scenes clearly belong on the cutting room floor some others might well have worked well, particularly one of the more haunting and extended scenes. From this menu there is also an Outtakes Reel that runs close to 4 minutes. Initially confusing as in fact it isn't outtakes as such but a montage reel of various scenes that provide clues.
Firstly we have four interviews, each with the primary cast members: Kim Kab-su, Yeom Jung-ah, Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young. What makes these interviews a little more enjoyable is that the director is conducting them himself and throughout he manages to get quite a lot of worthwhile input from each actor.
Next we have an explanation by the director. This runs for 10-minutes and has fellow director Il Pil-sung discuss the film with Kim Ji-wun. The film had received some very poor reviews from Korean critics upon its initial release, due to its complex nature. Kim gives us his thoughts about horror and how he wanted to use it differently in an unconventional sense rather than use flat out scares, and thus creating a slower, more methodical piece.
The director's thoughts on horror runs for 15-minutes and once again has Kim Ji-wun and Il Pil-sung discuss the horror genre, this time tackling Korea's misconception with it and how difficult it can be to come up with something fresh and make it succeed.
Finally this feature finishes up with "A Psychiatrist's Perspective". This runs for 5 minutes and has a great deal of insight from Kim Jung-il, who if I'm not mistaken suggests at the beginning that Kim Ji-wun might be a little psychologically troubled or just has a really good grip on such matters.
Easter Egg - Pressing the left button on the control in the interviews section will take you to:
A Letter from Su-mi
This runs for 8 minutes and has the young actress reflect on her experience making the film, recalling much happiness, along with her adoration for cinematography.
This runs for 4 and a half minutes and shows photos from the film's production, playing out to a piece of instrumental music.
A Tale of Two Sisters has won over many fans over the past year for obvious reasons, myself included. While I have enjoyed it I still feel that Kim Ji-wun has done better things in the past but that of course is my own subjective opinion and even saying that, this film is still damn good. There's no doubting its power on screen and I see no reason not to include it amongst the best horror films of the new millennium.
With regards to choosing the best current version of the film, well it's a pretty close call. While I find the Korean Metro disc to be better transfer wise and easily on par sound wise, the Tartan disc is indispensable for its great extras and with a film such as this that might be what fans really want. Either way the differences in AV is often minimal so if you're really after a packed set that you can understand then treat yourself to Tartan's release.