Memorable Haunting: Kim Jee-Woon On A TALE OF TWO SISTERS

The renowned Korean filmmaker looks back at his scary, sad, and stylish gift to the genre 20 years later.

By Nguyen Le · @nle318 · January 8, 2024, 5:00 PM EST
a tale of two sisters

The nightmare sequence has ended. Morning light is outside the window. But these signs of safety turn out to be cues for protagonist Su-mi (Lim Soo-jung) to spot a long-haired woman in black, inching across the floor. The woman is a ghost, that of her mother, right there at the foot of her bed. Her mother then stops, noticing that she is being observed…

Only second to the ending that reshaped everything, having a set piece in the daytime was why A Tale of Two Sisters personally remains genre royalty twenty years later. Inspired by the Korean folktale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, the film follows the turbulent days of the aforementioned Su-mi and her younger sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) as they share a roof with their distant dad (Kim Kap-su), an abrasive stepmom (Yum Jung-ah), two chilling spirits and one closeted truth.

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I've long wondered whether the sequence thwarted expectations from director and co-writer Kim Jee-woon. As I found out in my recent hour-long chat with him, the answer was in the vein of "yes."

"I would feel great fear whenever I was alone on an empty bus or in an empty building, daytime or night," he added, as translated by Jiwon Lee, "So to portray and visualize that on screen, I thought, could lead to a revolutionary scene in the genre. Also, it wasn't a jump scare, but instead executed at a very slow tempo."

That very slowness rendered actress Kim Hye-soo's tactic to avoid the film's scary moments by not looking at the screen until she felt safe — ineffective. As Kim recalled, the star of his segment in the anthology horror Three would open her eyes and still see the horror sequence playing out. A Tale of Two Sisters became notable for her as she struggled to gauge the horror or its pacing.

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The production design from Cho Keun-hyun was also a novelty. From Kim's perspective, this aspect was not a big priority in the Korean horror scene at the time. This was an exception. There was a need for great aesthetics — watch any Kim Jee-woon production, and you'll agree. But above all, there was the aim to rightly illustrate the subject matter — far from sunny but influential, and for better and worse, always present.

"The film is about memories as well as guilt and hatred," he said, "and the thing about bad memories is that, when you want to forget about them, they will come up and torture you. They have that power. We conveyed this through strong, colorful designs and patterns — beautiful and obviously very catchy, but all were visual representations of memories we would want to keep hidden."

Kim added that floral designs on sets and costumes were also purposeful when they portrayed the "impermanence" of elements like beauty and girlhood.

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On that note, the film's Americanized version, The Uninvited in 2009, gave me fewer things to say about the visual storytelling component. However, that didn't necessarily make it the incorrect approach. There might not be as much to spot and interpret, but to call it "wrong" would be to ignore the differences in how the West and the East perceive "horror."

"If we consider The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, or even Rosemary's Baby, they are all about combating evil from the outside," Kim shares. "The fear of the foreigner, the alien, the other. For Asian horror films, we would reflect or think about the horror coming from inside ourselves. I think what's distinctive about this film is that the guilt within our character [has completely formed her worldview.]"

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Among cinephiles, Kim is known to jump genres; with a filmography that includes A Tale of Two Sisters, multiple action films, a "kimchi western," a historical thriller, a sci-fi adaptation of a manga and a black comedy. Oh, the horror, the absence of horror! You could say there were flashes of it in I Saw the Devil and Apple TV+'s first Korean series, Dr. Brain, but they were only flashes.

So, what will it take for him to return to the genre? What must a potential upcoming horror project have?

"A good reflection or reveal of the true nature of society's current issues and problems, as well as being able to convey the beauty of the genre," he said. "Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure, for example, portrays the collapse of Japan's middle class at the time and the death of interpersonal relationships. Some of my favorite films from the past few years are Get Out and Under the Skin, with the former depicting racism in the U.S. and the abnormality in men and the latter showing our paradoxical fear of the unknown most stylishly."

Until then, Kim is working on a new project, a series based on the mystery novel Second Sister by Taiwan-based author Chan Ho-Kei. Interestingly, it will also be a tale of two sisters, about one determined to find the truth about the other's suicide.

He also hopes to visit Vietnam in April during the first Ho Chi Minh City International Film Festival. In a promotional video for the event, two of his friends, producer Jay Choi and actor Song Kang-ho — also co-founders of Anthology Studios — send well wishes.

Kim Jee-Woon ⓒCine21 (1)
Photo courtesy of Cine21.