Throughout “Spooktober,” Nicklaus Neitling reviews one horror property each weekday.
I’m not a big fan of haunted house fare, but South Korean horror flick A Tale of Two Sisters does it better than most American films.
Written and directed by Kim Jee-Woon, A Tale of Two Sisters follows Su-Mi (Im Soo-jung) after she returns from a psychiatric hospital. Her father (Kim Kap-soo) takes her to their private home in the countryside to join her sister, Su-Yeon (Moon Geun-young). There she is greeted by her new stepmother, Eun-Joo (Yum Jung-ah). It’s clear from the beginning that there’s an underlying dysfunction but it’s quickly overshadowed by a ghostly presence.
What makes the film stand out is the use of the ghosts as an allegory for personal trauma. I admit a lot of films do this, but this one is probably the most effective at it.
Spoilers for A Tale of Two Sisters.
Throughout the film, sisters Su-Mi and Su-Yeon are haunted by the monstrous ghost of their deceased mother. The children try to reconcile their angst with their fear of this ghost. Su-Mi is desperate for her father to notice the abuse Su-Yeon suffers at the hands of their stepmother, but their father refuses to listen.
Throughout the film, flashbacks reveal that the girls’ mother was terminally ill and the father fell in love with Eun-Joo, who was her live-in nurse. The film builds on Eun-Joo’s abuse and the house’s haunting until both intertwine in a heartbreaking twist.
It turns out that all of the house’s supernatural elements are Su-Mi’s delusions. Su-Yeon isn’t real; she died when trying to stop her mother’s suicide. Su-Mi could’ve stopped her sister’s fate, but her anger towards Eun-Joo kept her from staying in the house. Eun-Joo, however, knew Su-Yeon was dying but wanted to teach Su-Mi a lesson.
Under weaker direction, this twist would come of as cheap. But Woon’s choice to tell the story of Su-Mi’s regret and grief through these elements makes the film’s horror stay with you.
Her reluctance to deal with her mother’s suicide, her anger towards both her father and her step-mother, her guilt from her inability to save her younger sister: all these are expressed through a broken haunted house.
The only element of the film that didn’t work is Eun-Joo’s death. She’s killed by the actual ghost of Su-Yeon in the film’s final moments. No metaphor or allegory here: the actual ghost kills her. This undercuts the earlier reveal that the ghost was Su-Mi’s delusion. I understand the intention to show a satisfying revenge, but the main impact this choice had was confusion.
That said, A Tale of Two Sisters may have done the impossible: made me accept that the “ghosts” that haunt our houses are just the traumas we ignore.