A Tale of Two Sisters ("Janghwa, Hongryeon" in Korean) was originally released in 2003 in South Korea. Since then, it has won multiple awards in international film festivals, including best actress, best director, and best picture. Inspired by a famous Korean folk tale, this movie is a smart, thought-provoking thriller about two sisters and the trouble they have with their father and cruel stepmother.
The story starts with Su-Mi (played by Su-jeong Lim) in a mental institution. She is obviously in a distraught, almost stoic state, as she is questioned a psychiatrist about the events that brought her to the institution. From there, the whole story begins to unfold in the form of a flashback.
We learn that Su-Mi and her sister, Su-Yeon (played by Geun-yeong Mun), were just returning home to their father (played by Kap-su Kim) and step-mother (played by Jung-ah Yum) from a mental institution. The sisters were obviously not happy about their homecoming however. They, especially Su-Mi, seemed defiant and bitter towards their parents. As the story progresses, we learn that this is due to their father remarrying and their dislike for their stepmother.
From there, a sequence of strange events begin to occur, including a dinner party where one of the guests convulse involuntarily as if she is possessed, as well as Su-Yeon seemingly being haunted by an unseen spirit. These events seem to become increasingly random and confusing, until it is revealed that Su-Mi is still suffering from mental illness. So some of these events are actually hallucinations by Su-Mi. At this point in the film, it is obvious that it is the director's intention to challenge the audience to put the actual story together.
Near the end of the film, the audience is finally presented with one key flashback scene showing a family tragedy involving the girls, their birth mother, and their future stepmother. This scene explains the background of this family and what drove Su-Mi to mental illness. It also very cleverly serves as the key piece of the puzzle in helping the audience figure out the meaning of the previous scenes.
Due to the way this film is presented, there is a lot of room for interpretation as to the actual plot of the story. Unfortunately, for me personally, I find that there is too much room. I had a lot of difficulty in deciding which scenes actually happened, and which scenes were Su-Mi's hallucinations. Therefore, I was not able to fully stitch all the scenes together to understand the entire plot. Also, the film attempts to be both a psychological thriller with Su-Mi's mental illness, as well as a supernatural thriller with ghosts playing a key role in some of the scenes. This made it even more difficult in understanding what some of the scenes meant..
My problems with the plot aside, this film was beautifully made. The technical aspects of the film, such as cinematography, editing, and special effects, were all masterfully done. And there was obviously a lot of thought in all the subtle details in each scene. These details contribute to setting the tone of the film perfectly. Although I am not normally a fan of thrillers, this film definitely kept me engaged and thinking about the film well after it was over.
Overall, A Tale of Two Sisters is a thought-provoking and very well made movie that I would recommend. However, I can't say that it is a great movie because the plot is too difficult to follow. Perhaps it would be different after multiple viewings. There is currently a Hollywood remake of the film due out later this year. It will be interesting to see if the film changed to be more "straight-forward" for the U.S. audience.