A Tale of Two Sisters needs no apologies: it is not only one of the best nominal horror films of recent years, it is also a very good film in its own right, regardless of its genre. It is filmed with meticulous attention to detail, style and texture. As a "horror" film, it is difficult to classify. Whether it is a psychological horror tale, a ghost story, or both — or something altogether different — depends on your particular response to the film. Enough information is provided for you to make up your own mind, but just enough is left out to make you doubt that what you saw was really what you thought it was.
The movie opens in a mental hospital, in a large, sparsely-furnished interview room. A doctor sits alone in the room, waiting for his patient to arrive. A still, silent girl is brought in; the nurse's footsteps coming and going give us our only sense of time passing, and the noise they make as she crosses the large, empty space only serves to call more attention to the uncomfortable silence of the two figures at the table. As the doctor begins asking his questions, the girl doen't respond; she sits in the shadows, her long hair obscuring her face. As the doctor asks her what happened on that terrible day, she raises her head and looks off into space...
We wonder: is this happening before the events of the movie proper, or is this the prelude to an extended flashback? As the main story begins, the question isn't answered. By the time the movie is over, it still isn't answered.
The girl we have just seen is Su-mi. When next we see her, she and her younger sister Su-yeon are returning to their father's house in the country. We understand they have been away under observation for some sort of mental problems; some response to a terrible incident which is left unexplained. Since we have only seen the elder sister so far, and we're not sure whether we're in a flashback or a continuation, we may be forgiven certain suspicions... from the way the scene introducing the sisters is framed, and from little hints such as the fact that the father only calls Su-mi in from outside, we might jump to the conclusion that the movie is pulling a Sixth Sense twist on us: that perhaps the younger sister is already dead, and only appears to the elder.
Our suspicions are immediately dashed when we are introduced to the Wicked Stepmother. A Tale... is based on a Korean folk tale, and all good folk tales involve a Wicked Stepmother. This Wicked Stepmother pointedly greets both sisters with forced good humor (so much for our clever guesses). The younger sister is plainly terrified of the stepmother, while the elder treats her with cold contempt.
And so the pain begins. The whole dysfunctional family gathers in one place for the first time, around the dinner table; the strain becomes even more apparent when the father brings out some medication, and gives it not to Su-mi, as we expect, but to her stepmother. Evidently the sisters are not alone in needing therapy. The father himself is taciturn, and seems to be bowed down with the weight of his family's misfortunes.
Whatever happened in this house so long ago, it seems to have involved the stepmother and the inexplicably-absent mother. We get the idea that the mother is dead, and that the unexplained circumstances of her death are far from pleasant. But there is more going on than we might expect from the combined fear and loathing between the women of the house. For one thing, Su-yeon seems to have a dread of the clothes-press in her room. Then, for some reason, all three women begin their menstrual periods at exactly the same time. To complicate matters still more, there may be ghosts in the house. It's difficult to tell, since the two sisters view the haunting in different ways. Su-yeon hears footsteps approaching her room, and sees a hand opening her door; when she runs to her sister's bed for comfort, Su-mi has a vision — possibly a dream, but possibly not — in which a crawling grey corpse-woman (the absent mother, perhaps?) gives birth to a child-ghost in a welter of blood...
Is there realy a haunting? Is this all going on in the heads of the members of this obviously disturbed family? Who is on the other end of the telephone conversations the increasingly-despondent father makes? Why, if the sisters are the ones returning from the institution, does it seem as though it's the stepmother whose behavior is spiralling out of control?
We find out just how far out of control the stepmother has gone in the infamous dinner party scene, which for sheer discomfort must rank just above the wedding dinner in Freaks and just below the similar scene in Eraserhead. Like Eraserhead, the sequence begins in horror, and actually becomes funnier as things get worse. The stepmother's behavior eventually shocks one of the guests into an epileptic seizure, which is not in itself played for laughs, but which is the perfect punctuation for a scene so ghastly. What is significant about this scene is that before it is over, both the stepmother and the dinner guest have caught a glimpse of the girl-ghost from the elder sister's "dream"...
I understand there are some viewers who don't quite grasp the meaning of the movie's Big Secret when it's revealed toward the end of the film. Well, they're not going to get any help from me, I'm afraid; for once, I'm going to keep my mouth shut. There are other viewers, though, who claim that the plot twists of A Tale... are too transparent, and I suppose there are those who will guess in advance what the surface explanation of the plot turns out to be. For what it's worth, I didn't guess. There are some moments where the eventual "shocking revelation" may become obvious, but there is enough ambiguity about those moments that you may choose to disbelieve the evidence you've been given. Furthermore, while it's entertaining to experience the twists and turns of the plot without knowing in advance where they lead, the movie is just as enjoyable and rewarding when you do know its secrets. In many ways, it's even more rewarding on repeat viewing, even if you don't need to go back to fill in the details you think you may have missed.
By the time a surprising figure in a natty business suit steps into the action — a figure whose presence we have been expecting without realizing it — the film has given us a very good idea whether the strange events in the house have a supernatural aspect or not. The film has also done its very best to undermine that stated opinion. If you come away from the film with a clear and unambiguous idea of what has really transpired, you weren't paying attention: you need to go back and watch the movie again.
What is clear and unambiguous is the film's message that we are haunted (in one way or another) by our decisions; by our inactions as much as by our actions. An American remake of A Tale... has been announced; I'm very curious to see how Hollywood treats the film's particularly Asian concern with the consequences of worldly attachment. The movie does not have an explicit religious aspect, Christian, Buddhist or otherwise; but it does demonstrate vividly the ways some of our strongest and most human emotions — love, hate, jealousy, pride, fear, righteous indignation — bring with them worse tragedies than death.