Dread may be our most primal response to the unexplainably grotesque. If you reflect on the high water marks of Hollywood’s post-60s horror canon, you may find that the best–among them “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” and the more recent “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others”–all masterfully elicit and sustain dread. David Lynch, not really a horror filmmaker, has traded in the elements of horror from the beginning: Consider that cavernous thrum and echo that reverberates through the sound design from “Eraserhead” to “Mulholland Drive” and which foreshadow the nightmares, murders and dangers that saturate his dread-filled cinema.
As “A Tale of Two Sisters” attests, Korean writer-director Ji-woon Kim has well absorbed the lessons of Kubrick and Lynch. This tantalizing blend of psychological horror and chamber drama is propped up on the question of what is imagined and what is real–similar to M. Night Shymalan’s design for “The Sixth Sense” or Alejandro Amenábar’s for “The Others.” Unlike those filmmakers, though, Kim doesn’t strive to create fully rounded, sympathetic characters. Instead, he goes for a macabre fairy tale dynamic within which his main characters–a pair of adolescent sisters traumatized after their mother’s death, a sinister stepmother, and a guilt-ridden father–function more as archetypes in the Roald Dahl mold.
Kim concocts a puzzle box of a story–turning the past and the present, dreams and memories into slowly cohering pieces–as Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim), just released from a mental asylum, arrives with her sister, Soo-yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) to live at her father’s country house. Tensions begin brewing between the sisters and their stepmother (a terrifically chilling Jung-ah Yum) who may or may not be responsible for their mother’s gruesome demise. Soo-mi, who is deeply attached to her curiously quiet sister, seems troubled by her burgeoning womanhood (much is made of menstrual blood), terrorized by her stepmother and by nocturnal visions of her dead mother, all while her father hovers ineffectually in the background. “Two Sisters” teases us with bits of information, never providing quite enough to substantiate its weight of psychodrama and its final-act revelation feels tacked on just to tie up the frilly ends of its plotting.
Story weaknesses might easily undo your average Hollywood horror outing, but in “Two Sisters,” story is merely as a springboard for Kim’s bravura filmmaking. His movie is a delirious mélange of styles that absorbs us for two solid hours. Depicting the placid environs of his setting, Kim crafts a lovely, unhurried naturalism before he guides us through his forboding interiors wherein his movie becomes a kaleidoscope of color schemes and visual tones, from the retina-searing crimson of pubescence and death, the creams and blues of memory, to the bleaker hues of stepmotherly deception. Kim’s tour de force culminates with a Lynchian descent into madness, in which the sepiatoned past collides with its blood-spattered consequences in the present. “Two Sisters” poses gross questions of causality and character development, but when a filmmaker can wield his palete with such joyous and assured fury, who knows how to spook you with bursts of cinematic dread, you don’t ask questions. You just enjoy the ride.
Written/Directed by: Ji-woon Kim
Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-Young Moon