Thursday, February 2, 2017

Women in Horror: A Tale of Two Sisters

* spoilers *

Su-mi and her little sister Su-yeon move into a house with their father and step-mother Eun-joo. Previously, Su-mi was in a mental institution to deal with the death of her mother and she seems better now. It quickly becomes obvious that Eun-joo and the girls do not get along at all. Eun-joo seems to want to hurt them but especially Su-yeon, who she yells at and attacks when they are alone. Many instances of apparitions or visions appear to both Su-mi and Eun-joo, begging the question if being in close quarters with so much tension is driving them mad or if the house is haunted by some sort of presence.

A Tale of Two Sisters is loosely based on the Korean folktale Rose Flower and Red Lotus, the story of two girls and an evil stepmother. It's the most successful Korean horror film that was popular both in the US and South Korea. The original story shares the evil stepmother trope with traditional European fairy tales that Americans are familiar with, so the success of this film makes sense. There are three main characters: sisters Su-mi and Suyeon and their stepmother Eun-joo. The girl's father seems oblivious to everything that is happening and remains distant and cold despite his children's need for support and love.

Su-mi and Suyeon hold on to each other because they don't have any other source of support or solace. Su-mi is the leader of the two with a much stronger personality and more confidence. She tries to protect her sister as much as she can because her father offers nothing. While she tries to lay low and stay quiet in front of her parents, she isn't afraid to confront them directly when things get truly awful. Her drive to make everything seem fine is so she won't be returned to the institution, separated from vulnerable Suyeon. Su-mi and her psyche are at the center of this film as she tries to cope with her tragic past and what she perceives as her fatal mistake.

There are two versions of Suyeon. One is mostly timid and scared without saying much. She isn't a well developed character. However, when it's revealed that Suyeon died, it makes sense that Su-mi's version of her isn't as dynamic as the real person. Su-mi imagines Suyeon to atone for what she views as her own complicity in her sister's death. Su-mi is able save Suyeon from danger when she wasn't able to in the past. This shows how strong their relationship was and how devasted she was when Suyeon died. Her whole support system is gone and she's left with her distant father and her abusive stepmother.

The other version of Suyeon is a dark, decaying ghost that hungers for revenge. Both versions of Eun-joo are the only people who ever see her. This figure is up to interpretation, like much of the film, and I can't decide between two different theories. The first is that this is Suyeon's literal ghost seeking and eventually achieving her revenge that adds a genuine supernatural elements to the film. The other theory is that this is just another of Su-mi's hallucinations that represents her wish to have Eun-joo pay for her abuse and her responsibility for Suyeon's death. While I think the hallucination is more likely, there's an argument for the ghost as well.

There are two version of Eun-joo as well. The one seen most in the film is Su-mi imagining that she is Eun-joo, enacting abuse onto Suyeon and trying to murder herself. This may seem bizarre, but she views herself as responsible for Suyeon's death and perhaps just as complicit as the real Eun-joo. If her version of Eun-joo wins, Su-mi dies and is then punished for her actions. If Su-mi wins, she saved her sister to atone for the past. Her version of Eun-joo is beautiful with a carefully crafted image in front of the father. Her hair and makeup are always pristine with fashionable clothes. She is saccharine sweet in front of witnesses and then cruel and incredibly angry when alone with the girls.

The real Eun-joo looks completely different and isn't as overtly villainous. Her makeup is more natural and her hair is longer. She appears more comfortable, but just as fakely nice as Su-mi's version. What is shown of the real Eun-joo is truly terrible as she lets petty differences get in the way of saving Suyeon from dying. The film ends on the flashback to Suyeon's death and it's one of the most tragic scenes I've ever seen highlighted by Eun-joo's extreme cruelty. She finds Suyeon crushed by the wardrobe with her dead mother in it and chooses to leave without telling anyone. She seems to think better of it and starts to return, but she runs into Su-mi in the hallway who makes it clear that she wants nothing to do with Eun-joo. Eun-joo makes a cruel comment that Su-mi won't understand until later and then walks away. It's unclear what happened before this incident, but it doesn't justify Eun-joo's actions at all.

A Tale of Two Sisters is an unforgettable film that warrants multiple watches. The film is visually gorgeous with contrasting settings inside and outside the house. The inside is richly decorated, but sinister because of the dark lighting that harbors its and the family's dark secrets. Most of the film takes place inside and it starts to feel claustrophobic with the presence of so much tragedy. The exterior scenes are bright and colorful, featuring the only moments when Su-mi and Suyeon are truly happy. One of my favorite aspects for the film is that it's hard to tell which moments are real and which are hallucinations. If you have a different interpretation of the film, I would love to hear it. I might write about it again in a few years because my opinion changes or I see something different and that shows how powerful and well crafted this film is.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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