“Do you know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost.”
Out of all the horror archetypes the ghost story is unquestionably the saddest. And it’s always struck me as curious at how unexploited this trait usually is. In literature and film the ghost is usually taken as an aggressive, frightening creature, a mobile mirror of our own mortality. By its very nature the ghost is a pathetic remnant, a literal shade of its former self.
Kim Ji-Woon’s, A Tale Of Two Sisters is among the saddest ghost stories ever filmed. If that is indeed what it is. With a few key exceptions the ghost at the center of the film (and just who is the ghost at the center of the film?) is not seen as an aggressive force as a mournful one. The stain of an event that cannot be erased, the result of an act of negligence that is almost unimaginably cruel.
A Tale Of Two Sisters opens with the titular pair coming to their family’s new home after one of the sisters has had a prolonged stay in an asylum. Things are odd at their new country home, their Father is remote and withdrawn, their step mother, if not wicked is at least overly ingratiating and while the estate itself at first seems down right idyllicly pastoral there is a presence in the house that both girls sense. You probably have at least some idea where this is going.
And indeed the biggest flaw of A Tale Of Two Sisters is how it holds together as a narrative. At its most convoluted A Tale Of Two Sisters resembles the serial killer movie that Donald Kaufman pitched in Adaptation. The tortuous plotting only some what ameliorated by the fact that Kim leaves certain things, if not ambiguous, than at least open to interpretation. (Though one interesting thing is that the one interpretation that is perhaps the most natural, that it is all in the protagonist’s mind, is also the only one that Ji-Woon explicitly rules out. In the films most famous scene, the most uncomfortable dinner party this side of The Exterminating Angel, Ji-Woon brings in the only two characters in the film who are outside of the family seemingly for no other reason than to specifically invalidate this interpretation. It’s clear that there is at least some sort of supernatural presence in the film, to me the real question is how many.)
Where Ji-Woon truly excels is in the layer of dread he brings to the film, the heightened emotional intensity, and the aggression of its imagery. While the film is obviously Korean, it was made at the end cycle of The J-Horror boom, and seems to be at the very least commenting on the imagery found therein, faces of principles and spirits alike hidden by dank curtains of hair, unsettling artifacts, scenes punctuated by pregnant knowing silences. It’s all familiar but given an aggressive spin, as when the standard lank haired Japanese spirit approaches one of the sisters in her bed, a fairly typical set up though rarely this well done, then straddles and begins to menstruate over her. This before a hand bursts from a place that hands don’t usually burst from. It’s the type of scene that makes you go, “Oh yeah I’m watching a Korean new wave movie,” and A Tale Of Two Sisters has more than a few.
Though Chan Wook Park has established himself as the leading voice of the Korean New Wave, Kim Ji-Woon is probably my favorite. I still consider his Bittersweet Life to be one of the most underrated films of the movement, a hard as nails utterly gorgeous action film, and the greatness of his The Good, The Bad And The Weird, and I Saw The Devil hardly need to be rehashed here (though I will admit I have no idea what to make of his upcoming Arnold Schwarzennegger Verus Truckulese American Debut).
To me the exciting about the film isn’t their unity but their diversity. Aside from a preternatural visual skill what links them is their willingness to juke formula, to take familiar forms and turn them on their head. Making them lively and dangerous. A Tale Of Two Sisters takes the ghost story, one as old as any (it has roots in a centuries old Korean folk tale) and twists it into something that feels poisonous and dangerous. It is a film that feels haunted.