Ever since their inception here in the states six months ago, Tartan Films USA, has taken off like a bat out of hell without any signs of slowing down. An American offshoot of the successful UK distributor, Tartan Films, they launched their "Asian Extreme" line in January which has been steadily releasing several Asian DVD packages which have certainly made me take notice. From the phenomenal Korean horror Phone to the mind-boggling Japanese A Snake of June, they've got an impressive list of releases and have been putting them out in what can only be described as "Deluxe Editions." I'm talking cardboard sleeves and tons of extras, so of course I'm excited by their newest addition, the Korean horror, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003).
Based on a traditional Korean folk tale, "Janghwa, Hongryeon," that isn't too far removed from our western fairy tale, "Snow White." A tale about two sisters, Rose and Lotus, who must endure the jealousy of their (What else?) wicked stepmother, who constantly berates and abuses them for ruining her otherwise perfect life with their father. Well, that is one big difference from the western version, since in the Korean tale the father and stepmother are together, instead of widowed leaving the daughters behind. This adds an interesting new dimension to things as you question the relationship between them and how the father could accept of his daughters' deplorable treatment.
The film starts as Su-Mi (Soo-jung Im) and Su-Yueon (Geuon-young Moon) return to their families house after being hospitalized for some unknown ailment. Right from the beginning things don't seem right, as the girl's stepmother, Eun-Joo (Jung-ah Yum), stalks around their large spooky mansion, driving a wedge between the girls and their father. It's unclear what, if anything, their father does, but from a stack of pictures the girls uncover, I'd say that he was a Dr. of some kind. It's interesting to note that Eun-Joo is also in these pictures, so perhaps she was a colleague of his before they decided to consummate their relationship. It's all very ambiguous and mysterious as this calm, quiet movie proceeds to creep the living shit out of you. Mysteries abound regarding the girl's mother, a possible spirit living in the house, and dreams that may or may not be real.
Director Jee-won Kim's staggering attention to detail (the lovingly slow tracking shots of wallpaper could very well hypnotize you) is one of the reasons this movie just gets inside your head. Subtle is how I've described it to most people, but that's not to say that it doesn't have several "jump out of your seat" moments hidden up its sleeve. In fact, it's the rich, detailed living space he's created, coupled with the deliberate pacing that makes those moments deliver so well, and by stacking one reveal on top of another he's created a movie that holds up on repeat viewing, if only to piece all the clues together.
Walking the line between a psychological thriller and an out and out horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters is certainly a unique addition to the growing number of amazing Asian releases of the past 10 years or so. Jee-won Kim is a director whose work I'm familiar with, but his previous films The Quiet Family (which Takashi Miike remade as The Happiness of the Katakuri's) and The Foul King didn't prepare me for the level of style and sophistication present in this work. The ending is a genuine surprise, which is a miracle in this day and age, but still left me scratching my head a bit. After re-watching the scene a few times, I can honestly say that it doesn't matter if it makes sense, as it is what it is and answers every question it asks.
Picture: A Tale of Two Sisters is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer that just looks amazing. I would recommend watching this film on the biggest television you have available as there is so much detail present in every frame of this film that you won't be able to take it all in watching it on a smaller set.
Audio: There is a Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track and a Korean DTS track. As I don't have a DTS decoder, I watched it with the 5.1 surround track which sounded great.
Extras: As I'm finding with many of the Tartan "Asia Extreme" releases, they are really pulling out all the stops when it comes to these discs. On Disc 1, there are two complete commentary tracks. The first is with the director, cinematographer and lighting director, and the other features the director and stars of the film. On Disc 2, there is a "Behind the Scenes" Featurette, several cast interviews, deleted scenes, some post-production documentaries, analyses of the film and trailers for more Tartan "Asia Extreme" DVDs.
Conclusion: With an amazing track record of top-notch Asian releases over in the UK, it's great that a company like Tartan Films USA has come along to deliver some of the most consistently thought provoking and satisfying DVDs here in the US. Without a doubt, A Tale of Two Sisters earns its place alongside such classics as Ringu, Ju-On, Cure and Phone, but unlike any of these (except maybe Cure) A Tale of Two Sisters' initial set-up is so familiar to a western audience that the few cultural difference that do pop up don't take you out of the film. Hopefully, this will mean that Dreamworks won't butcher A Tale of Two Sisters when they remake it the same way that they did with The Ring. Do yourself a favor, skip the remake and get this Highly Recommended DVD instead.