A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (henceforth ATOTS) opens with a short scene set in what is clearly a psychiatric ward. A doctor prepares to interview a patient, who turns out to be a rather scary looking young lady, whose face is covered by her long black hair, which hangs forward unnaturally. The doctor wants her to tell him "what happened that day", but she refuses to speak and the scene fades to be replaced by the view from a car window travelling through pretty countryside. The car arrives at a large isolated house, and the man who was driving gets out before asking the unseen passengers in the back whether or not they're getting out. He walks off and two girls get out - pretty Su-mi and her younger sister, Su-yeon. The girls wander around the house's estates, before being called in to the house. Here we are introduced to their step-mother, and it's clear that relations between them are strained to say the least. That night Su-mi has a terrifying dream, whilst something enters Su-yeon's room and pulls off her bed cover. An increasing feeling of dread ensues, culminating in a farcical-yet-frightening dinner party. Both girls and their step-mother are affected by the house's atmosphere, with only the father seemingly unaffected. What is causing the strange occurrences and visions? Is the house haunted? Why do the girls hate their step-mother so much?
Unfortunately, I can't possibly go into any more plot details as it would spoil the film badly. Suffice to say that things take a very unexpected turn around two-thirds of the way through, and the remaining third will require your concentration if you're going to end up with even a vague idea of what exactly happened.
ATOTS is loosely based on an old Korean urban legend, which has also served as the basis for several other films. There are some truly chilling scares and, as several reviewers have confirmed, it must have been great to watch in a packed cinema. Admittedly, the apparitions (as in JU-ON) owe a debt to RING, but they're carried out with real flair here and don't feel derivative or like cheap copies in the least. I like films that gradually build up a feeling of tension and dread in the viewer, and this is one of the most effective examples I've seen in some time. The house itself is a great piece of set design, almost becoming a character in the story. The interior is decorated in a series of strange floral wallpapers (the film's Korean title means "Roses and Lotuses"), which give the house a feeling of age and also ambiguity. The acting from all the major participants is excellent, and there's a brilliant, haunting score that fits the mood of the film perfectly. The film is also gorgeously photographed, getting the most out of both the house and the rural setting and turning things like a brief shot of washing hanging outside to dry into a lovingly composed canvas.
Having said all of that, there are a few minor criticisms that could be made. Firstly, the film is slow. I have no problem whatsoever with slow films, and didn't object in the least, but I can imagine that some people would find it takes too long to build up steam. Secondly, not enough information is given for the viewer to fully be able to decide what exactly happened. Again, I don't mind guessing and having to work things out (it's part of the fun of a film like this), but some aspects could have been made a little clearer without diminishing the puzzle. Thirdly, whilst the film is very successful in building its atmosphere, some scenes really don't serve any narrative purpose when reviewed with hindsight and exist solely to generate tension. For example, the early scene when something seems to be lurking just beneath the water whilst Su-yeon dangles her feet, or the scene in which Su-mi finds something bloody in the fridge, or the scene when Su-yeon's duvet is pulled off. I could give several other examples, and though they don't add up too much, they are a bit of a cheat.
Many people really seem to love ATOTS, and whilst I enjoyed it and wanted to love it, I can't truthfully say that it worked completely for me. There are two very popular recent Hollywood films that will inevitably be brought up in reviews to compare to this one (I don't want to name them for fear of inadvertently giving too strong a hint of what to expect from the film, but if you see ATOTS then I'm sure you'll know which films I'm referring to!), and I felt much the same way about them, though ATOTS is without doubt the best of the three. I don't want this to come across as a negative review as this is a very well crafted, cleverly constructed and entertainingly spooky film. If, like me, you found JU-ON a real disappointment after all the fanfare surrounding it, I think it's safe to say that not only will you not feel let down by ATOTS, you might just love it.
ATOTS is the latest Asian horror film to be bought up for remake by a Hollywood increasingly bereft of original ideas, except that this time the film in question is South Korean in origin (as opposed to RING, DARK WATER and JU-ON, all Japanese). Even though the director of ATOTS has only made three full-length films since his debut in 1998, he isn't a complete stranger to remakes - his debut film THE QUIET FAMILY served as the basis for Takashi Miike's marvellous THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS. You'll no doubt be hearing a lot more about ATOTS over the coming year, and it's good to know that the Asian horror boom shows no real signs of losing impetus just yet.